Dr. Tovah Klein, affectionately called a ‘Toddler Whisperer’ by her many fans, shared her insights with Motherly about the science of early childhood development, how to navigate challenges like potty training and bringing home a new baby, and her advice for over-extended new parents.
Can you help us understand the science (biological & social) underlying the deep bond between mother and child?
Newborns are biologically set up to attach to a caregiver, ideally a loving, sensitive and responsive one.
Mothers also have hormonal systems in place that encourage and support this growing bond. This earliest relationship literally molds the baby’s brain and begins her journey of becoming a person.
The relationship provides the context where the infant becomes attached to the mother as she responds to the infant’s cues for love, nurturance, comfort and care. The back and forth of the mother responding to and taking joy in her baby establishes the model for the child’s future relationships and sense of self.
In a loving relationship, the child learns how to love and to be loved, the basis of both becoming one’s own person and learning to care for and be compassionate to others. Years of developmental research and newer neuroscience findings show the underpinnings of how this develops.
During this early part of life, a baby’s brain is molded by loving care that forms the basis for the infant growing into the toddler who will be capable of separating and becoming independent (“my own person”).
The paradox is that the baby must be attached first in order to feel safe enough to separate and go out in the world. The reason a toddler can start to explore the exciting world around them is that they have built trust that “I am not alone in the world.”
The young child can go out and explore knowing that they have a secure base (mommy or daddy) to return to for comfort and care. It is a powerful relationship and provides the key to the deeply forming self.
Recent research shows that 90% of a child’s brain growth is complete by age five. What are the most impactful things parents of toddlers can do to plant the seeds for lifelong success?
A loving, stable, caring relationship is the most important base a parent can provide.
Before a child can be excited about learning, she has to feel safe and that her needs (emotional and physical) are taken care of. This happens starting at birth, and from there the child moves out in the world with curiosity and desire to learn. I don’t mean to worry parents by saying that so much of the brain growth happens before age five.
In fact, there is room for change and growth in the brain after five; but the base gets established. The firmer the base, the better able the child is to negotiate their environment, to handle life’s ups and downs, to grow and learn.
The early years
What it means is that the early years matter a lot. The most crucial piece of what matters is how the young child is treated, responded to and loved by the parents.
When children feel secure and safe in who they are, they are set up to develop the ability to relate well to other people and care about them, to handle their emotions and control their impulses, to pay attention and try new things, to get back up when they fall down and to develop confidence.
These are essentials for growing up and for being part of a community.
“A baby’s brain is molded by loving care.”
Many children welcome new babies to the family while in their toddler years, what’s the best way to prepare a toddler for a new sibling?
This is both a joyful, exciting time for a family and a trying time, as it means big change. Toddlers are little, and it is hard for them to understand what is happening when a new baby comes into the family.
In terms of preparation, I advise parents not to over-prepare the child. Yes, this is an exciting time and parents and grandparents are excited. But children have very little sense of time, so the earlier they know a new baby is becoming, the more anxious they can be. A child of four or five will be better about waiting for the arrival, but still can get worried.
Don’t over-talk it; and if it is a child under age four, wait even longer to tell them. I work with parents who have waited until the final month of pregnancy to tell the two-year-old. It is hard for them to not say anything, but then they are so relieved they did, for the child’s sake.
Prepare the little one by saying something like, “in a while we are going to have a new baby in our family. But you (toddler) will still be our baby, and mommy and daddy will always take care of you.”
Toddlers are self focused, as they should be at this age, and the main thing is to assure them that they will still be with you. You will still be their mommy and daddy.
Close to the due date, let the toddler know that soon the doctor/midwife will help the baby come, mommy will be going to the hospital for a few days and tell your child who will stay with them and take care of them at that time. Then reassure them of the one thing they really want to know—that mommy will come back. (Dr. Klein shares more in a Baby Chat TV video you can watch here.)
Potty training is at the top of the stress list for most parents of toddlers. What are some of the biggest mistakes to avoid?
The mindset a parent takes into this process is more important than anything.
The biggest mistakes are thinking it happens right away or worrying it will never happen. Neither is true. Most parents seem to know someone who breezed through potty training.
It’s a process
Lucky for you if that occurs; but most often it is a process, with accidents and setbacks. It takes time for a child to make this leap.
There is no shame
The biggest mistake to avoid is shaming the child. Your child knows you want him out of diapers and he wants to please you. But it is a big step for a child to take. For some children, learning to use the toilet is harder than for others. Do not ever shame them for it.
Instead, let them know that accidents happen and you will keep helping them learn. If your child resists a lot, it may be a time to step back, let them know you will try another time. No shame. No blame.
You talk a lot about the importance of creating routine for toddlers in your book, what does that look like and how do we balance that with not creating a rigid or inflexible child?
Children have no sense of time. The toddler brain does not have the structures in place for time.
That is hard for an adult to imagine. We organize our lives around schedules, dates and time. The reason routines are important is they help organize the child’s day and also provide a feeling of security and control as in, “I know what happens next; I am part of this.”
Routines should be for anything you do daily: getting dressed, brushing teeth, mealtimes, bedtimes, getting out the door in the morning. That way, the child learns what to expect and does not feel as if suddenly things shift without them knowing what is going on. I view routines as a ‘roadmap,’ a set of goal posts that guide the child. They have an order but need not be rigid.
For example, a bedtime routine can be bath (‘pick two toys to put in the tub’ gives a child some control), drying off, pajamas, books, cuddles and lullaby, kisses and good-night. Some children like to arrange their animals in bed or have a blanket put on them. That becomes a final ritual before sleep. What the routine does is help a child move forward in a similar way each night.
Flexibility comes from different parents having a slightly different way, or maybe tonight there is no bath so you do extra cuddles. The routine can vary slightly, such as when visitors are there. Going back to it the next night brings comfort and teaches the child it is okay to do it differently at times, the routine will return.
Beware! Two- and three-year olds (and even older) can be very attached to a routine and thrown off it changes. They get better at flexibility in time. The more that routine is followed, the more flexibility will follow. Routine is ‘home base’ for them. It is what they know. And that brings comfort.
We’ve found that a lot of moms are overwhelmed with contradicting parenting advice on nearly every topic, what is the one piece of advice about raising toddler’s that you think is universal?
Your child is little now and that will pass quickly. Love and acceptance of your own ups-and-downs as a parent and of who your child is goes a long way in raising children. There will be good parenting moments and not so good ones. The world is not a perfect place, and that holds true for being a parent.
If you can step back, exhale and relax a bit, you will trust yourself more. I am a ‘parenting expert’ yet I can tell every parent that there is no one right way to be with a child.
Every child is different
I know this from my own experience as well of raising three children, each with different needs and personalities. There are hallmarks, such as loving, responsive care, but there is no single ‘how-to’ that fits every child.
Try not to get overwhelmed by all the information and ask yourself what you feel will work, what you can trust yourself to do. Too much information can undermine trust in ourselves. Have humor, a lot of it. Kids are fun and funny. Enjoy them, knowing that whatever they are doing now that is driving you crazy will likely pass.
Is there anything else you’d add about the wonderful ‘toddlertopia’ of early childhood?
The toddler years are both wonderful and trying. It is because the child is new to the world, has so much to discover, and so much they want to do. But they are limited by their own inabilities and still developing skills, brain and mind as well as the reasonable limits and boundaries you establish.
Try to look at the world through their eyes, rather than adult eyes, and you will see the wonder and curiosity they experience.
It will help you enjoy this time more. It passes fast.
Finally, keep in mind that there is much to learn and see in their toddler world and that can overwhelm them, too. They need you.