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Is It Normal? A Guide to Quirky Toddler Behavior

Hmm … What’s This?

Admit it. Fess up. As much time as parents spend hoping that our children will grow up healthy and happy, we devote a fair amount to worrying that they’ll be … well … normal. So when our toddlers begin to shed their babyish innocence and start adopting one or two (or 12) undesirable habits, it’s natural for Mom to secretly fret that her son will be branded the class nose picker or for Dad to choke on his Wheaties when his daughter starts chewing Fido’s dog biscuit at the breakfast table.

As the mother of two little kids, I can say with conviction that I’ve seen almost everything. And, I can also say, if ignored long enough, most oddball toddler behaviors will eventually pass. Besides, whatever quirky habits linger into grade school will quickly be erased by a healthy dose of peer pressure within a week or two. But since my laissez-faire, “Relax—they’ll live” attitude can be difficult to accept when your mother-in-law insists that your daughter’s hair sucking habit is dangerous, I’ve consulted with two experts to get the lowdown on what to ignore, what to limit, and what to stop immediately.

Insatiable curiosity is unquestionably the hallmark of a healthy toddler. After all, seeing, touching, and tasting are how they learn about this crazy world we’ve brought them into. And what better place to begin exploring than in your own backyard, so to speak? The human body is rife with interesting areas to explore, so it’s only natural that children poke their fingers, say, up their noses to see what’s there. And as pediatrician Dr. Joseph Baust, MD, of Nashville’s Centennial Pediatrics explains, “They are usually rewarded for their efforts by finding something.” Although it’s kind of embarrassing when kids do it in public, nose picking and kids go together like peanut butter and jelly. They all seem to enjoy it at one time or another. Rather than make a big deal out of it, which will only serve to prolong the behavior, Dr. Baust says, “Simply redirect their attention to another activity and perhaps wash their hands.”

If a child’s face is his playground, then the private area further south is like a trip to Disneyland. It’s simply fascinating! Not only are there lots of strange areas to discover, but touching down there feels good, too. Perhaps because they are initiated early on by infant boys with tiny erections, many parents aren’t altogether shocked when their son pulls and pokes his penis for fun. But even the most earthly mom (like me) can become tongue-tied when her little girl rubs herself and announces she has a tickle spot! Dr. Baust assures us that “genital exploration is a very common and normal developmental stage,” and recommends calmly redirecting when it happens in public or just ignoring it at home.

Beans, Beads, and Barbie Shoes

Once a toddler’s located all the interesting spots in his body, the next step is to see what he can hide in there. Paula Spencer, author of Parenting Guide to Your Toddler, says, “The nose, in particular, is easily accessible for poking or stuffing.” A nose that runs on only one side or a whistling/wheezing sound can be a sign of a blockage, but this problem won’t go away by ignoring it. If you suspect your child has a small object stuck in an ear, nose, or other crevice, don’t attempt to remove it yourself, as you may very well make the problem worse. Seek immediate medical attention. Dr. Baust agrees, “Let your doctor try getting the foreign body out first.”

What’s on the Menu?

Once a toddler’s located all the interesting spots in his body, the next step is to see what he can hide in there. Paula Spencer, author of Parenting Guide to Your Toddler, says, “The nose, in particular, is easily accessible for poking or stuffing.” A nose that runs on only one side or a whistling/wheezing sound can be a sign of a blockage, but this problem won’t go away by ignoring it. If you suspect your child has a small object stuck in an ear, nose, or other crevice, don’t attempt to remove it yourself, as you may very well make the problem worse. Seek immediate medical attention. Dr. Baust agrees, “Let your doctor try getting the foreign body out first.”

Nervous Nibblers

Doesn’t it just figure? As soon as you finally become comfortable trimming his tiny fingernails, your little one starts biting them off by himself! Nail biting can be a sign of anxiety, but it’s no cause for alarm or intervention. Dr. Baust says that, “Kids that bite their nails usually have a parent who does it as well.” Mothers are often tempted to bribe and cajole their young daughters into leaving their nails alone or pull their hands from their mouths, but drawing attention to the behavior or making a child feel self-conscious will only promote more nibbling as a nervous habit. If left alone, most kids will abandon their nail chewing for more mature annoying habits like gum cracking, pencil tapping, and incessant throat clearing.

Similar to nail biting, some children relieve tension through hair twirling or sucking. It’s no big deal; in fact, many girls with long hair continue to twirl it into their teens because it’s simply something to do with their hands when they’re studying or gossiping in the hallways. However, you should consult a doctor if your child actually pulls hair from her scalp. “This is called trichotillomania and is certainly something that should be evaluated your doctor,” advises Dr. Baust.

Birthday Suit Bandits

It’s ironic that I spend so much time selecting, washing, ironing, and laying out cute little outfits for my children when there’s nothing they like better than running around stark raving naked. Completely oblivious to social norms and blessedly free from shame, toddlers revel in the feeling of freedom that comes from shedding their clothes. Part of the fun is the “Do it myself!” feeling of undoing snaps, buttons and zippers, while undressing is sometimes prompted by boredom. My oldest used to take off all her clothes in the backseat of the car during any trip lasting more than 15 minutes: I’d leave the house with a perfectly groomed toddler and arrive at the grocery store with a giggling naked ape. The problem comes in when they decide to go au natural at daycare or during a visit from your uptight Aunt Mildred.

Spencer has a great solution for pint-sized streakers; “Some children enjoy special skill building dolls whose clothes feature zippers, buttons, and snaps on which to practice. Overalls or one-piece rompers—clothing that’s hard to take off—may also help a streaker lose interest.” If your little one goes to bed clothed and wakes up in the buff, try putting his PJs on backwards, zippered up the back. Looks weird, but works wonders.

In The Long Run

Forbidden fruit always tastes the sweetest, so try not to let on that any strange behavior surprises or annoys you. And while most quirks and puzzling habits will fade away into funny memories, never hesitate to consult your doctor if something concerns you. Dr. Baust confirms, “Remember that all parental concerns and questions are legitimate. If a parent feels that a discussion with the pediatrician is warranted, then one should take place.” In the meantime, take heart that your unique children are as normal as can be … especially when you compare them to mine!

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