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Odd Baby Behaviors

You've heard all about how toddlers are picky eaters, how they love routines and saying no. But what about the countless odd yet endearing little things your child does every day? If you've been puzzling over your toddler's behavior, here's how to decipher it.

Q. Why does my son line up his toy cars and blocks?

A. Don't knock it: You could have a child who will grow up to make his bed without being asked. "Some children are just neater than others, and having things in a certain order gives them a feeling of control and security, both of which are very important to toddlers," says Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D., professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University.

It's possible, too, that your child is beginning to learn to sort things by certain characteristics. Check to see if there's any pattern, such as cars of one color grouped together or blocks lined up in order of size.

Q. Why does my toddler insist on going back again and again to a particular page in her favorite book? I'm ready to scream.

A. Either because she's fascinated by something on that page  -- a color or a shape  -- or she's noticing something new about it each time. "Children at this age learn by repetition, and when they find something interesting, they'll look at it until they tire of it completely before moving on to something else," says Bennett Leventhal, M.D., director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Chicago School of Medicine.

Although it's best to be patient when your child seems mesmerized, if you just can't spend another second looking at the balloons in her book, you might suggest going on a "hunt" to find others. But don't be surprised if she comes right back to her favorite page. Toddlers feel a sense of mastery in familiar things.

Q. Why does my 15-month-old love to carry keys or blocks when he's walking around?

A. Chances are, he's only recently become an adept walker, so it's likely that this activity is the next biggest physical challenge: walking while carrying something at the same time. "When a child first learns to walk, it's all he can do to balance himself; now he can bend down, pick something up without falling on his tush, and carry it across the room. That's a fantastic advance in his motor skills," says Honig.

Q. Although my daughter usually points to her nose when I ask, "Where's your nose," she sometimes points to her mouth. Why?

A. The answer may lie in her expression when she's responding to you. If she looks frustrated, for example, she might not know the answer as readily as you think. "Children often know things in certain contexts but not in others  -- they might, for instance, be able to identify a cow in one book but not in another," says Jacqueline Haines, executive director of the Gesell Institute for Human Development, in New Haven, CT. Or, she says, "your toddler might just be frustrated with answering the same question over and over, so to stop the questioning she'll answer incorrectly on purpose."

Although it can be fun to ask your child to point to things as you name them, if she's either bored or not quite ready to answer a particular question, move on to something new. "Children pay more attention to an activity when they initiate it," says Haines, "so if you want your toddler to point to the cows in the book, it may be best to wait until she starts pointing to or naming them first."

Q. My son loves to play hide-and-seek and peekaboo, but he either hides in really obvious places or just covers his eyes. Does he actually think I can't see him?

A. "Toddlers are naturally egocentric, so your son probably thinks that if he can't see because his eyes are covered, then no one else can see either," says Larry Kubiak, Ph.D., director of psychological services at Tallahassee Memorial Behavioral Health Care Center, in FL. "Also, the fun of these games is in the finding. He wants to hear you say, 'There he is!' It's the sense of excitement and discovery that he enjoys most, not the hiding." The searching part becomes a thrill by age 4, when most children understand the concept of hiding.

Q. My toddler repeats words after me. If I say "Let's go eat," she'll start chanting, "Eat, eat, eat!" Is this normal?

A. It's not only normal, it's another milestone on the way to being able to talk well. "Between 15 and 18 months, repeating a word over and over is a toddler's way of grasping how that word is used," says Haines. "Kids this age learn words through repetition, as well as by enjoying their rhythm and patterns. That's why they also love rhyming songs and books. You know your child's learned something when you read her favorite book or sing her favorite song and she notices when you leave out a word."

Q. Why does my 18-month-old insist on putting things in the toilet or unrolling the toilet paper every chance he gets?

A. What could be more fun? Toilets and rolls of paper tend to bring out both the scientist and the rascal in toddlers. "I call this period between 18 and 24 months the 'what-will-happen-if' stage," says Honig. "When a child is unrolling this seemingly endless roll of paper, he's impressed by the volume building up; then when it's completely unrolled, he discovers this tube that's fun to spin. As for the toilet itself, toddlers can experiment to see how high the water will build up if they keep putting things inside, or they can be fascinated  -- and perhaps even a little scared  -- by the things that disappear when you flush."

Of course, you want to stop your child before the entire bathroom is flooded, but you don't want to suppress his curiosity. The solution? "Redirect his interests by channeling these experiments into things he can do safely," suggests Honig. "For instance, ask him how many marker scribbles it will take to fill up a whole page of paper. You'll still be answering the 'what-will-happen-ifs' but in a way that's safe."

Q. Why does my toddler do things she knows she's not supposed to do  -- like scraping a toy against the wall?

A. "To get a rise out of her parents, and to see what kind of behavior she can get away with," says Carole Morgan, Ph.D., a psychologist with the Los Angeles Institute and Society for Psychoanalytic Studies and an expert in early-child development. "Children are not born compliant; they have to learn rules. And even though limits make them feel more secure, they also want to test them." By age 18 or 19 months, toddlers are also starting to have a greater sense of independence and separation between themselves and their parents, which they find exciting (and a little scary).

The key to maintaining your sanity and a functional home is to teach her what's inappropriate behavior. Don't just say no, but rather explain that if she makes a mark on the wall, it makes the house look messy. The key to encouraging her independence is to give her plenty of opportunities to be autonomous in other ways, such as helping you pick out her clothes or choosing her own bedtime story.

Q. My son can't resist going up to other kids his size and patting them on the arm or head. It's cute, but why does he do that?

A. It's his way of saying hello at an age when he may not be able to just come out and say it, and experts say such gentle behavior reflects well on you. "This is his way of passing on the love and affection that his parents  -- and others  -- have shown him," says Kubiak. "You don't want to squelch his behavior, but you do want to make sure your son's good intentions are channeled in the most appropriate way. Teach him to stop if another child shrinks from such touching."

Q. My daughter can walk perfectly well, but she insists on being carried. How come?

A. She may just want a little hugging. "It's not unusual for kids to master skills and still want to regress occasionally," says Kubiak. "Wanting to be carried just may be a toddler's way of looking for reassurance and being babied again. Even as adults, we enjoy going home and letting our parents fuss over us."

Of course, if your toddler always wants to be carried, you might want to discuss it with her pediatrician, since it may be a reason for concern. But if she just wants to be carried every now and then, give in and don't worry.

Q. My 2-year-old is still in diapers, but he likes to go to a corner to "poop" and then emerges victorious once he's done. Why?

A. Privacy. "He's probably aware that family members often go into a room by themselves for their bodily functions but hasn't yet realized that's something he'll be doing later on," says Haines. "Often, kids go into a corner in their bedroom because it's a place where they feel very comfortable."

Such behavior may also mean that your toddler is starting to understand that when he experiences certain sensations, he's going to have a bowel movement; getting himself into a corner to do it shows he has some control over his bowels  -- all of which brings him a step closer to being ready for potty training.

Q. I was nervous when my toddler was hardly talking by her second birthday. Three months later, she was speaking in complete sentences. How common is that?

A. Many kids follow this pattern of speech acquisition. Still, parents worry because it's not the most common pattern described in child-development books. "Such books give only general guidelines, but not all children will follow them," says Haines. "Some kids just spend a great deal of time figuring out how things work and then they make large leaps. This is also a common pattern for second children because their older siblings often do the talking for them. Some toddlers focus on mastering their motor skills first and move on to language a little bit later."

"If a 2-year-old's receptive language  -- what she understands  -- is strong and she's saying some words clearly, there's probably no cause for alarm," says Haines. But pressuring your child to speak could frustrate her. Instead, model the language by speaking clearly yourself, and allow your toddler plenty of time to talk when she's ready.

Q. My 2 1/2-year-old calls every four-legged creature he sees a dog  -- even when I tell him that it's a cow or horse. Why?

a "Very young children tend to classify things by only one characteristic  -- all animals with four legs are dogs or anything with wheels is a car, for example," says Morgan. "As their minds mature, they begin to make greater distinctions among different objects. Starting around age 3, kids learn to classify objects using more and more distinguishing characteristics."

How well your child identifies objects may also depend on how often he's exposed to them. A 2 1/2-year-old may be able to tell a bus or a truck from a car if he plays with toy cars and trucks frequently. But don't be alarmed if he can't do this yet. Like many things your toddler is learning to master, it's a complex task that will come with time.

Laura Flynn McCarthy lives in New Hampshire with her husband and two sons, ages 8 and 2.