My mum used to say, “We need cuddles to grow”, but I think that was just her excuse to get hugs from us (I don’t think I was a clingy baby). Cuddles are amazing, but it can become quite tiresome when you go to put your child down and they try to cling on for dear life. To avoid upsetting your clingy baby, you end up carrying them around all day long, which is not an easy option. The good news is that there is usually a good reason for their clinginess.
What do we do when something goes wrong, we hurt ourselves or are scared of something? Nine times out of ten, we go to our mum or dad. This is precisely what your baby is doing; they’re coming to the person who has carried them, fed them and spent the majority of their life with them. A baby’s unusually clingy behaviour is often a sign of something that they are going through. Individual temperament plays a part, and they all vary to some degree, but when we delve a bit deeper into possible causes, there are some things you can do.
Causes of a clingy baby – things out of our control
They’re their own little person (nature vs. nurture)
Some babies are certainly clingier than others, just like some babies are better eaters, better sleepers, quicker walkers, etc. Babies temperaments vary, as I have regularly seen with many twins over the years, i.e. two little people who have grown up in the same environment and yet one is clingier than the other. This is the result of nature, rather than nurture.
Our environment is what makes us feel safe. If certain aspects of your baby’s environment have changed, e.g. moving house, starting day-care or a slight shift in the norm, then this can cause little ones to feel unsettled and, as a result, they can become a rather clingy baby. Given time, they will adjust and the clinginess will pass. A new sibling is a classic cause that can result in a clingy baby or child, and we can’t blame them for that!
Developmental phases and illness
If your baby is going through a certain developmental period or they are unwell, then their clinginess is often accompanied by crankiness and crying, which is also known as the ‘3 C’s’ as described in The Wonder Weeks book.
All babies go through some form of separation anxiety. As babies grow older, they become more aware of who is with them, holding them or around them. They may reject their dad, grandparents or even carers during these periods.
Jean Piaget’s concept is that children by 8 months of age have developed object permanence, which is the idea that objects continue to exist even when one cannot see them and they begin to understand that mum and dad will come back even if they’re out of sight for a short time. Before 6 months of age, if something is out of sight, they think it’s gone forever.
Causes of a clingy baby – things within our control
From the emails, I receive from exhausted mums needing help, 99% state that they have a clingy baby. These babies are often overtired, irritable and refusing nutritious food, opting for packets of purees instead, which often contain higher amounts of sugar and low amounts of protein. I say to parents that sleep is often the first phase of the virtuous circle. Increased sleep usually means increased and improved appetite. Once children are eating and sleeping better, they feel calmer and the clinginess settles.
Overtired children feel more upset, angry and sad in response to unpleasant events. They struggle with change and are opposed to trying new things (i.e. new food).
Diet and sleep are closely linked and they are as important as each other. Some foods help induce sleep (e.g. those containing tryptophan) and others are detrimental to the process (e.g. sugary yoghurt).
Fresh air and stimulation
Never underestimate the benefits of fresh air and sunlight for little people. We know that sunlight, as well as hormones, play a role in helping babies establish their circadian (day and night) rhythm.
A study in the UK looking at different levels of sunlight exposure for infants found that babies who slept well at night were exposed to twice as much sunlight between the hours of midday and 4 pm as those who slept poorly at night.
Encourage little periods of independence for your clingy baby
If you want to gently move away from carrying your baby everywhere, start off with small steps towards independence:
Encourage your baby to sit or lie next to you instead of on your lap and then start to do little activities where you step out quickly and return. By doing this, it builds up trust, that you will return.
Always talk to your baby about what is coming next in the routine, this is particularly important at bedtime so they can prepare, rather than just springing a new activity on them.
Give lots of praise for positive behaviour and show empathy and encouragement when you know something is challenging for them.
You know your baby best – be aware of situations that cause them to feel frightened or to become clingier, e.g. a family member trying to pick them up for a cuddle. Try not to force your child to do something that they do not like (and is not necessary) and find an alternative to a situation. Remember: this is your child and you are their voice.
“Having kids—the responsibility of rearing good, kind, ethical, responsible human beings—is the biggest job anyone can embark on.” – Maria Shriver
By working on your child’s sleep schedule, even when it seems hard to do, you may get them the rest they need to build up a better appetite for the foods they need as well.