When I pictured having a child before my son was born, I imagined him as either an infant — rocking him to sleep, swaddled in blankets — or as a young child, probably a preschooler or kindergarten being taken to the zoo or to amusement parks. What I had very little experience with, and couldn’t imagine the special challenges of, was dealing with The Toddler.
Officially at 12 months, a baby becomes a toddler. But for me I basically think that any baby who has started walking, whether it’s at 11 months or 16 months, is now a Toddler. (My son was 13 months old when he started walking, and that is when the toddler fun began for us.) There are huge developmental changes going on in the mind and body of a toddler, but they mostly can’t tell you anything about it. The best analogy — and funniest cartoon — that I’ve seen about toddlers is comparing them to zombies (although this cartoon calls them “babies,” it’s clear that this dad is definitely referring to the toddler variety): lurching, unstable, oozing with bodily fluids, bent on destruction and mayhem.
When my son became a toddler, I looked at all my baby books and realized that they had very little relevance any more. And I had no toddler books. And I was afraid. Very afraid. My son had turned into a difficult eater, defiant and tantrum-prone, dangerous to himself (and, in some cases, others), and more exhausting than I thought humanly possible.
Looking back at what I read about babies, there were some signs about impending toddlerhood. But I ignored them. Here are the five lessons that you won’t see emphasized in books that I wish somebody had told me about before my son became a toddler:
1. Even if your kid was a fantastic eater before, he will become aggressively, annoyingly picky about his eating habits. There will be no rhyme or reason to his food choices. I bragged about my son’s eating habits until he turned about a year and a half to anyone who would listen. He would eat anything: fruits, vegetables, spreads, any meat or fish. The one day he stopped. For days he would only eat pasta. I questioned how it was possible for him to survive on so few calories. But apparently this is normal and don’t stress about it. My son will eat about a week’s worth of food in one meal and then barely eat again for days.
2. Teething may get worse. Even if you never even noticed that your infant before was cutting a tooth, molars may be a different story. My son’s teething didn’t seem to bother him much until he became a toddler. Then he started getting his first-year molars and canine teeth. It took weeks of near torture for all of us for any of these teeth to come in.
3. Buy an extra “attachment” or “transitional object.” Until he became a toddler, my son’s “loveys” were basically interchangeable. He had a bunch of those cuddly blanket/stuffed animal things, and all of them were acceptable sleeping or stroller companions. Suddenly, when he turned about a year old, he had to have one specific stuffed lamb. All the time, or he would have a meltdown. I bought an exact replacement, but it was too late. Only that lamb would do, and now my son is constantly carrying around this stained lamb, often with food all over it, because it takes a day’s worth of pre-planning to figure out when and how I will take the lamb away from him long enough to go into the washing machine.
4. Naps will be terrible for no reason and then suddenly get better. My son didn’t have much trouble with transitioning to three and then two naps as a baby. Never a strong sleeper at night, he had always been a better napper during the day. But then soon after his first birthday, he refused to take two naps, but one nap was not enough. We moved his bed time to 6, and then he would refuse to nap altogether. Then his naps were really short, and finally — again, for no apparent — his naps started to lengthen, and he’s often taken three hour naps during the afternoon.
5. If you have strong feelings about getting rid of your baby’s pacifier, do it before his first birthday. I do actually remember reading that in several places before my kid became a toddler, and I’ve written about my battles with my son’s binky before. I wish that I had fully realized that toddlers can develop an incredibly deep emotional connection to the binky — and very soon learn to demand it — far beyond just wanting it to help them fall asleep. Honestly, if my son had to make a choice between his binky and me, I’m not sure which he would choose at this point.
Toddlers are really hard work. I mean, often soul-crushing, tear-inducing bundles of boundless determination and energy. And they’re always changing. Based on my experience, they are even more amazing, loveable, and joyous than infants, but also more frustrating and difficult. And technically my son hasn’t even hit the “terrible twos” yet.