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When Babies and Toddlers Go on Strike! An Aware Parent Perspective

My ten month old son was getting a new tooth, and while it wasn’t causing him pain, his latch must have felt different. One day, he sort of chomped/grazed me while he was feeding. I jumped and let out a ‘YELP!‘ On the surface, he showed no obvious response to my reaction. But, when we started having extreme difficulties feeding for the next few days, I knew that he had been upset by my reaction to his bite.

It’s very common for babies and toddlers to ‘strike‘. Most common are breastfeeding ‘strikes‘, or if you’re doing elimination communication, it could be a potty ‘strike‘. (If you haven’t heard of elimination communication, it’s taking your baby to the potty, I wrote a blog post about it here.) Other ‘strikes‘ could be sitting still for a nappy change, getting in the carseat, getting dressed, brushing teeth, etc. I lumped all the ‘strikes‘ together, because while the reason for the ‘strike‘ may be different, the remedies for the ‘strikes‘ are generally the same!

Sometimes the ‘strike‘ seems to resolve itself, while other times, the ‘strike‘ seems to go on forever.

I put the term ‘strike‘ in quotation marks, because it’s not really that the baby doesn’t want to continue with the activity. Rather, babies at this age go on ‘strike‘ because of some sort of unmet need or pent up emotions. This post will talk about WHY a baby goes on ‘strike‘ and what actions you can take to resolve the issue, all while staying emotionally available and connected to your baby.

When a baby or toddler goes on strike, you can ask yourself these questions:

Did Something Frighten the Child?
In the situation I described with my son biting, it was later obvious that I had scared him when I jumped. Then, every time I put him to the breast after that, he would do the same pop off/graze-me action every time he tried to feed. (ouch!) When babies (also big kids) get scared by the parent’s response, they may repeat an action over and over again, trying to make sense of their painful feelings. Sometimes, they may even do something ‘bad‘ and laugh about it! For example, some people get angry with their baby for throwing food off the high chair. The baby gets frightened or confused by the reaction, and then the baby repeats the action over and over again and sometimes even LAUGHS about it! Which drives the parents even more nuts and can make parents get very angry and even punish the baby…

When a child turns into a repeat offender it’s often a good indication that the child was initially frightened and needs some help overcoming some painful emotions.

Some babies are very sensitive and will even get frightened if you’re only FEELING frightened or anxious. Even if you try not to show it, they may still pick up on it!

Other times a baby might just get scared of something physically painful. For example, if a baby has a painful bowel movement, the baby may be scared of subsequent bowel movements, even if there is no more pain. Or, the baby might get scared of a sound (like the blender), and continue to be scared, even when there’s really nothing harmful that’s going to happen.

Is the Baby or Toddler Frustrated and Tired of Being Controlled?

Babies get frustrated, just like adults. Actually, they may even get more frustrated than adults because they have no real way of communicating their needs! For example, a baby might be tired of always getting scooped up and put in the carseat. Imagine if you were in the middle of deep and meaningful play and somebody interrupted you! Now, imagine it happened over and over again, every day! So, this is when the baby starts to feel powerless and goes on strike.

Another example happens if you’re doing elimination communication, and you take your baby to the potty too frequently, she might start getting annoyed that you’re taking her when she doesn’t have to go. Then, STRIKE!

Sometimes, the frustration of a baby doesn’t even correlate with the strike at all! The baby might be frustrated that he can’t reach a toy that he wants, and then later on, he might take that frustration out when you try to put his nappy on, by wiggling or even screaming.

There are soooo many reasons why a baby can get frustrated, but the good news is that you don’t have to go sorting through the garbage can of their emotions to to get to the bottom of it. More on this in the remedy section.

Am I Listening to What My Baby Needs?

Sometimes a baby will bite if we’re offering the breast/potty/whatever and he doesn’t really want it. If a baby gets upset by something and comes crawling over for a cuddle and we stick the boob in his mouth to settle him, he may be annoyed that you didn’t just let him sulk in your lap. It would be like coming over to complain to your best friend about something and her trying to distract you with chocolate. You like the chocolate and you eat it, and you’re happy she offered it, but really, you just wanted to talk about your problem. (ok, bad example, because chocolate is yummy, but you get the point?). My son sometimes protests when I put him in the car. If I try to put him in and he arches his back and screams bloody murder, it’s usually because I either missed one of his pees and he’s gone in his nappy, or he’s busting to pee and he wants me to take him first. He can’t talk, but he can PROTEST! If a baby protests being fed with a spoon, perhaps he prefers putting the food in his mouth by himself, or maybe he’s just not hungry?

Again, there are so many variables here, but you know your baby best and often. If you can have a few quiet, peaceful moments to think about the problem, we can usually guess what’s going on.

The Common Remedies for Strikes

If the Baby or Toddler was Frightened, Laughter Play and Role Playing is One Remedy

When my son chomped down on me and went on a breastfeeding strike, I had to act fast, or I knew that would be the end of our breastfeeding relationship. The next day or so, we did quite a few sessions of laughter role playing, where I put his mouth over the nipple and before he could chomp down, or try to even get a suck, I pulled it away, in a fun joking way that made him laugh and laugh. We did this over and over again for about a minute, making sure that he was laughing. (You wouldn’t want to do something like this if it was making him more scared). Laughter is the antidote for fear. After a few minutes of this play before each feed, he was back to normal feeding in about 3 (admittedly stressful) days.

Another example was of the time my daughter was a toddler and she had a very painful bowel movement on the potty. She got really scared to poo again! So, for a few days, we did laughter play about pooing, and lots of role playing about poo and within a few days she was not afraid to poo anymore. I wrote a more detailed blog post about it here.

If the baby is on a GENERAL strike and you’re not sure what to do, you can just do GENERAL playing and laughter games! Sometimes, all our babies and toddlers need is a little connection.

My husband used to love playing silly games with my daughters when getting them dressed. He was not even aware he was doing it, it was just his nature to be silly with them. But, the play was working to help the girls be more cooperative when it came to getting ready for bed and brushing their teeth, so yay! First he would put their pants on their head and socks on their hands. Then, he would ‘brush their ears’, instead of their teeth. They would laugh and laugh!

While tickling can definitely make a child laugh, it’s not recommended in aware parenting. It would take another blog post to explain it, but basically, it can be a little bit of a violation of body space and some kids really dislike it, even though they ask for it and are laughing. I used to hate being tickled by my dad, although, I did love when he did it because he was playing with me. Don’t feel guilty if you’ve been tickling because it’s not entirely wrong, the kids are still laughing and connecting!! But, maybe try some of these other playful techniques to elicit laughter.

Crying is Another Way to Heal Emotional Pain

Crying is a natural healing mechanism that helps a child to overcome painful emotions. Most often, we try to stop a baby from crying when something upsets her. But, really we should be doing the opposite! When babies cry over a hurt or frustration, it’s very beneficial to allow the baby to cry in a supportive manner. It’s never recommended to leave a baby alone to cry.

While I did lots of laughter play over this feeding strike, we also had to do some crying. Every time, during the strike, after the playing and before the feeding, he would cry. I held him in my arms for a few minutes. I looked him in the eye. Because he had so much pent up emotions, he freely cried as soon as I did this with him. After a few minutes or less of crying. his body was more relaxed and gradually, over a few days, he began to feed better. (Note: There’s no set amount of time that a baby needs to cry to release all the emotions. Sometimes it’s a few seconds, other times it’s much much longer!).

At one point or another, all of my babies have boycotted one thing or another. Potty, getting dressed, nappy changes, carseats, etc. They arch their backs and scream when you try to get them to do whatever it is! Sometimes, I have to sort of make them do the thing while they were crying about (like getting in the car seat, getting dressed, go to the potty) For those reading this because of potty strikes in elimination communication, I understand it sounds weird to hold them over the potty or bushes while they’re screaming, but if you have a strong feeling that they have to eliminate and they’re still protesting, often, this is when they tend to vent their frustrations and if you DON’T take them, they can get even more upset for not listening!

Give Babies and Toddlers a Choice and Options

Young children often feel powerless in their daily routine. Since they can’t talk, they get schlepped along all day, whether they like it or not and it can get very frustrating! So what you can do is give these young children back some of their power.

Even a young baby can pick out which clothes he wants to wear, if you hold out two in front of him. Maybe the baby would prefer to feed laying down in bed, as opposed to out in the living room? Would the toddler rather pee in the potty in the living room, or maybe in the bushes outside? If your baby is playing with a toy and you have to snatch him up and run to the car, can he bring the toy with him?

It’s not to say that we go overboard allowing a baby and toddler choices, because sometimes, no matter what options you give, they will still be upset. And, let’s face it, you don’t have time to play a hundred questions every time you need to get something done. But giving children at least a few things they can chose will make them feel like they have more control.

As the child gets older, you can keep doing giving options, within reason. Would you like to use the green cup or the blue cup? Would you rather walk this way or that way? Just little things that will make them feel like their voice is being heard too. If nothing seems to make them happy, and they’re whining and complaining about everything, it’s likely that they have some pent up emotions brewing. Then, a cry or some laughter play will help.

More Playing Ideas

To help babies and toddlers feel like they have some say in their daily routine, you can do something called power reversal games. For example, you can pretend to let a baby or toddler ‘knock‘ you over. They will laugh and feel like for once, they have some power over you! Don’t worry, by letting them do this sort of play, they will NOT always think they can push you over. If they want to do it over and over again, and they’re laughing, that’s a good thing. Then, the play is working!

Another type of play is called ‘contingency games’. These are games where you allow the child to do some sort of action that makes you react in a certain way. For example, if they touch your nose, you make the funny noise, “beep”. Again, it’s like you’re giving them power to boss you around for a bit. It’s a great comic relief for both you and the child!

This post is just a little taste of aware parenting and only touches briefly on some playing parenting techniques. If you really want to dive deep into how play can change the way you parent, I highly recommend reading the book, “Attachment Play” by Aletha Solter





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