Understanding why toddlers cling to one parent over another and how to break the cycle.

Even as a pediatrician, I didn’t completely understand this dilemma until after we had the first four of eight children. Parent preference is a normal developmental stage.

A baby’s language

First, let’s talk about the baby’s cry. A baby’s cry is a baby’s language, designed for the survival of the infant and the development of the parent. During the first three years of your child’s life, both mom and dad will refine their listening abilities and baby will refine their language abilities. Once, this was erroneously dubbed “spoiling” or “manipulation.” New insights have upgraded these outdated concepts into building a trusting relationship and teaching babies the art of communication.

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Mothers and fathers are wired differently

Notice I use the term “differently,” not “one better than the other.” Babies thrive on the different responses between mom and dad. During the early months, especially during breastfeeding, a baby’s cry actually causes hormonal and neurochemical changes in the mother’s brain and body. In response to her baby’s cry, a breastfeeding mother will leak milk, and she has a hormonal surge that prompts her to sensitively and appropriately respond to her baby’s language of need. Ever wonder why, at least in the early months, dads sleep through the night while mothers don’t? Mothers are naturally wired more sensitively.

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Enter toddlerhood

Again, notice the difference. Suppose the parents take the toddler out to the park for the first climb on the monkey bars. One parent will issue a cautionary, “Be careful!” The other parent gives a balancing, “Climb higher!” Both are right.

That being said, a realistic fact of parenting is that this psychological difference can be exhausting. When Stephen, child number seven, was still waking up during the night because he loved to nurse, I analyzed the situation and needed to practice what I preached: “Psychology aside, what baby needs most is a happy, rested mother.” That’s when I practiced the number one parenting tip that I give new, and tired, parents in my medical practice: “When trying to understand why your baby cries for a need and wondering how you should respond, immediately put yourself behind the eyes of your baby and ask yourself, ‘If I were my baby, how would I want my mother and father to respond?’ You’ll always get it right.”

So practicing what I preached, I got behind the eyes of Stephen and figured out he was waking up to nurse at night because during the day he was so busy playing, rather than eating, that he forgot to nurse. But at night, he had mom all to himself, so he was literally going to “milk” the situation for all he could. Also, naturally, he cried for Martha more than me because I was, shall we say, a milk dud.

I needed to figure out some way of getting Stephen to want me instead of Martha. That’s when I realized that “nursing” doesn’t mean only breastfeeding. Fathers can “nurse” because nursing means comforting, not just a way of feeding. Admittedly, this dual acceptance of both parents responding to cries is a bit easier when dad shares the responsibility. I needed to get Stephen to accept my father “nursing.” That’s when I developed two uniquely male comforting tricks, the “neck nestle” and the “warm fuzzy.”

Whenever Stephen woke up crying for mom, I would quickly intervene by draping my neck and chin over his head and singing in a deep male voice:

“Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep my little baby. Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep my little boy.”

He loved my father “nursing.” Martha woke up less, and Stephen cried less for her and accepted my comforting measures more.

As you can see, “clinging to” and “crying” for one parent over another is a normal stage of development. It will pass, especially when your toddler develops more language to express what he needs in words more than cries.

Above all, give a nurturing response, which moms and dads naturally do differently. This raises a child with the number one quality you want to instill into your toddler at the most vulnerable age for learning — empathy. You want your baby to realize that the world is a warm and trusting place to be and you are raising a child who cares.

Bill Sears, M.D., is a father of eight and the author of 42 books on family health, including The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood. A practicing pediatrician for over 40 years, he is an Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. Dr. Sears is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and a fellow of the Royal College of Pediatricians (RCP).