Ask an expert: Dorothy Einon

Ask an expert: Dorothy Einon

As our resident child development expert, Dorothy is here to offer advice on behavioural issues, sleep problems, toddler tantrums and family conflicts


We have a new kitten and thought my daughter, who’s four, would care for it, but I caught her pulling the kitten’s tail and she could see the animal didn’t like it. Why would she do that?

Until children are about four and a half they don’t fully understand that each of us has thoughts and feelings which are uniquely our own and not shared by others. She thinks her experiences are shared by you. So if she hurts she thinks you hurt and if she does not hurt she thinks you do not. The same is true of the kitten.

A tail is an interesting thing – something kittens have that people do not. So of course she wants to investigate. Because pulling the kitten’s tail does not hurt her (and it gets an interesting response from the kitten) she will pull without understanding why she shouldn’t. She’s not yet quite old enough to work out for herself that tail-pulling is painful to the kitten. But she can learn to do as she is told. So tell her no and that she makes the kitten cry. But don’t expect her to understand the cats feelings. She needs another year to be able to do this.

My 17-month-old is having terrible tantrums – sometimes trying to hit his head, and me too. Any tips?

If you can identify the triggers, you may find ways to prevent tantrums or work round them. Are they more likely when he is tired and hungry? If you think this is the case you can often prevent them. Is it when he is frustrated by things he can’t manage – or when his independence is threatened, such as when strapped into a car seat or buggy? 
If you see one brewing, create a diversion. So, if he is getting mad because he wants a particular toy, pass him another one. 
It can be scary if he is banging his head.

Generally, children don’t do this hard enough to hurt themselves, but obviously it is better to avoid it. Some children will calm down if you pick them up in a firm cuddle, or you can place cushions by his head. Easier said than done, but the important thing is to keep calm. Shouting just makes matters worse, and hitting back sends the wrong message and makes a child more hysterical.

Speak reasonably, saying, ‘It’s ok, I won’t let you hurt yourself, and you can’t hit mummy. You must calm down now.’ If a child is very out of control, even that won’t work and you just have to wait until it’s over, then have a cuddle to forget about it. Children do grow out of this tantrum phase – and will do so more quickly if you can try to stay calm and positive.

My son is 15 months old and is very responsive to me, but not to my friends or other babies. He’s not talking yet either, but should he at least be starting to point to things?

Children do not really play together until they are over two. Before this, they can join in with adults and older children – as he does with you – but the under twos cannot begin a game by themselves – which is
 why little ones tend to sit side by side doing their own thing. As for interacting with your friends, he may just be shy or not know them well enough to feel at ease just yet (even if he sees them, it depends how often they engage with him).

The skill of striking up friendships for themselves develops between the ages of two and three, but even at three a child
may be more attracted by the games other children are playing than by a particular child. From three onwards children are more likely to select activities because
they want to be with a particular child.

My one-year-old son uses a dummy and I’m concerned this might hinder his speech development.

If a child has a dummy in their mouth constantly it might affect speech development, but not if it’s used only to comfort and settle. When a child is settling off to sleep, the last thing you need is for him to start a conversation. Research suggests that children who have a comfort object – such as a dummy – cope better with change and 
new situations.

It’s as if the object helps them to learn how to face challenges. Because a dummy can cause teasing as children get older, I suggest you gradually teach your son to use his dummy only in his bedroom or when absolutely necessary and that you provide 
an alternative (a teddy, perhaps) to use as 
a comforter for him in public. A little button sewn into a pocket can ‘magic’ confidence 
as children start nursery and school and when you return to work. Tell him, ‘When you hold the button, I’ll be thinking of you.’

My son has just started crawling at 
13 months, which is late. Does this mean that he’ll reach all his other milestones later than his peers?

If one milestone is late, others tend 
to be late, too. But crawling is not a good ‘marker’ because not all babies crawl. Sitting is better for judging developmental speed. If he is not yet sitting, or using his finger and thumb to pick up peas or other small things, you may need to get a developmental check.

I used to read to my daughter daily, but now that I’m back at work it’s feeling more like a chore. I’ve bought an audio set of stories and she listens to them on her own at bedtime twice a week. 
Is that ok, or am I a bad mum?

Story-time is a time for cuddles, one to one talking and preparation for reading. It’s a time for a child to watch your finger move under the words, to see the pictures and corresponding words, and to look for detail. But do you need to do this every day? Probably not.

She needs daily cuddles and as much chat as you can provide and she needs stories that introduce more complex language, stretch her memory, fuel her 
imagination, and feed her ability to pretend. If like most working mothers you are tired, the one to one conversation as you cuddle up together is more important than the story, so make this your priority rather than time for reading – and don’t be too hard on yourself.

In your experience, what’s the 
best method to get a baby to settle
at bedtime and sleep for as long 
as possible at night?

As adults, we feel sleepy when we carry out routines that usually precede sleep – such as getting into bed, settling down and turning off the light. The same is true for babies. Fixed ‘go to sleep’ routines really do work, but beware of making them too elaborate or too ‘parent-centred’ – this just makes a rod for your own back.

The routine should be short enough to get her to bed quickly, and complete by the time you reach the cot.
 A bath, a song and cuddle (later a story) 
on the sofa then a kiss and a ‘goodnight’ wave to everyone is adequate. Then take her to her bed, cover her up, say, ‘night, night’ turn off the light and leave the room. Remember the cot is for sleeping in. She does not need toys hanging in and around her sleeping area as they will stimulate and distract her from sleep. Very dark rooms
are more sleep-inducing than light ones
and are better for the baby’s eyes, too.

If you can make her daytime/short
sleep routines and sleep area distinct from those used at night-time, that would be ideal. A child who learns how to go to
sleep by herself is more likely to sleep through the night.

My three-year-old son was potty trained at 18 months, but has recently started regressing and will not bother to wipe himself properly.

If by regression you mean wet or soiled pants, this is not that unusual. It is often associated with changes in the child’s life, be it a major or minor disruption. But sometimes a child has an accident or because he has a minor urinary infection.

This will also show him a new way to gain your attention. I mention this because you say he is not bothering to wipe himself which sounds like attention-seeking behaviour.

So what to do? Play it down 
and change his pants without comment. 
Be neutral, rather than negative or positive, and when he is in his new pants, and a little 
time has passed, give him a cuddle – but don’t make the comforting a consequence of his wet pants.

As for his failure to wipe try buying some super soft toilet paper or let him choose his own character-themed rolls. Not making a big deal about it is the best option initially, so give him a couple of weeks to improve on his own, but if he is still not wiping, then it’s time to have a word with your GP.  

My husband finds it difficult to play with our toddler and constantly puts the emphasis on education. It feels wrong that he’s doing this, but is it?

It could be. There is evidence that children who live in countries where they are taught to read at the age of six to seven have fewer problems than British children who are taught at four to five. This is probably because more four-year-olds find it difficult to hear the little sounds that make up words, and children who think they ‘can’t read’ are more likely to give up. This is the danger of an overemphasis on early education.

Also, when children start school they are almost all full of enthusiasm to learn, but by ten many have lost this because the pleasure and fun have gone, and they switch off. Of course we are not talking about all children, and an emphasis on education now may not create problems for your child. But perhaps you could explain to your husband that toddlers do not learn as we do. They like things to be repeated, to do things over and over.

Neither is learning always what it seems. Negotiating how a bike fits through a gap or how one brick stacks on another involves maths. Hiding and finding teaches reasoning – learning that things exist even when we can’t see them. Nursery rhymes help reading because rhyme helps children hear the sounds of words. Learning should be fun, and left to their own devices, children will make it so.

My two-year-old daughter locked me out of our flat last week and ran around inside until my husband returned. How do I stress to her that what she did was both unacceptable and dangerous, but not scare her?

I think you should have emphasised how unacceptable it was to do this, the danger and how unhappy you were, without worrying too much about frightening her. Would you tell her not to run into the road without mentioning the dangers? But I say all this in the past tense because very young children need to be told at the time – rules are best spelt out in the context in which they are broken. Keep a withdrawn, unwelcoming expression.

Describe what happened. Say it was a very naughty and dangerous thing for a little girl to do. Tell her how it made you feel. Say you expect her never to do this again, then withdraw. You can put her on the naughty step, or in her room, to emphasise the separation. But remember that children like to be the centre of attention, whether it’s because we are being angry or loving, and they will do something again if it’s guarateed to gain your undivided attention.

When he was two, my eldest opened the door, went out and was missing for over an hour. I explained, I told him the dangers, I said it made me sad, but a week later I caught him trying to do it again. Be prepared, too. Give a neighbour a key and perhaps get a coded key safe for any lock which can close when the door is shut.

We’re having a holiday with all the family – a big gathering of young and old. I’m worried about a meltdown; any tips on how to avoid one?

First, why do you expect a meltdown? Are you being realistic or pessimistic? How is this meltdown going to arise? Ask yourself who is on a short fuse, who has a history of falling out, who gets on each other’s nerves, what topics of conversation are best avoided, whose children are badly behaved etc. Now ask again whether you are being pessimistic.

If not, work out how best you can radiate and encourage calm. In my experience families often get on very well, especially 
if they can turn a blind eye to each other’s shortcomings, sidestep argument and upset, and engage the brain before speaking. Ownership is often a problem with young children, so have rules about sharing, such as the owner being able to say if a toy can be shared.

Things not to be shared should be out of sight when not being played with. Have rules about chores, too – especially if self-catering. Our family had a points system – three for the cook, two for the cook’s helper, one for tidying a bedroom and so on – with a weekly points target dependent on age. Be organised, but don’t try to do everything together. Make use of all the babysitters and take it in turns to have private ‘couple time’.

I don’t know if this is just a phase or 
is cause for concern, but my one-year-old son hits himself on the head and it seems to be a random thing, although he’ll sometimes use a toy which really worries me. Is this something he’ll grow out of and can I ignore it?

Small children learn the location of their hands early on, so they tend to avoid hitting themselves (except when too excited to think clearly!). But knowing where something is that they are holding is more complex. They have to compute where the end of whatever they are holding is in relation to their head and, of course, this varies with whatever
they are handling. Errors happen and there is nothing to worry about.

Between the ages of one and three, 
around 75 per cent of perfectly normal, well-adjusted children sometimes
physically (or emotionally) hurt themselves intentionally. They bite themselves, bang their heads on the floor, kick hard objects, go out of their way to make you cross, fall to the floor in tantrums or just get upset about silly things, like their socks. The best way to deal with this is to look away, show no emotion but offer comfort and cuddles when they are ‘back to normal’. It’s a phase they grow out of.

My four-year-old daughter has developed an obsession with my breasts. She likes to cuddle and squeeze them, and put her face against them. I don’t mind this in the privacy of home, but she continues 
to do it when we’re in public. If I try to stop her, she gets upset. How can I persuade her to stop doing this?

Most four-year-old children are old enough to understand what is allowed in the privacy of the home (like showing her bottom) and what is not. So in general you should make 
it clear to her that there are some things that are not allowed in public, and squeezing your breasts is one of them.

Be very, very clear.
 If she does it again in public, pick her up, go stiff and expressionless, look away and hold her tightly so she has no access to your breasts. When she stops struggling say, 
‘Let’s make up and be friends’. If she reaches for you breasts again say ‘no’ – and repeat 
the big squeeze. The message you’re giving 
is ‘touching my breasts stops me from 
giving my attention to you.’ You say you 
do not mind in private. But will you still 
not mind when she is nine? How would 
you feel if she was a boy? I think it’s 
probably time to stop.

My granddaughter will be three soon and is exceptionally bright, but she will not use a potty or the toilet. She sits on her potty then gets up straight away and wees where she stands. 
She’s very strong-willed and will not be bribed! She also gets upset when I ask her if she wants to wee or poo and we don’t like to put pressure on her. Have you any suggestions?

Remember that age is not a guide to readiness. Does she go for long periods between wees? Does she know that you go? Does she know when she is about to wee? If yes, she is ready. When there are long gaps, begin training. Before you go out, take her to the toilet and get her to wait with you while you go, then say ‘your turn’ and sit her on the toilet.

Don’t make a fuss if she does not go. With stay-dry nappies and pull-ups, it’s harder to train children because weeing in
a nappy has no unpleasant consequences. Wet knickers get cold and feel unpleasant, so it’s easier to learn if she’s in cotton pants. If your granddaughter does not like her potty, see if she will try the toilet. Some children like to climb up (so get a step) and cling to the big seat, others like their own seat.

When children are ready, it takes very little time. If it’s a battleground, it can last a while. So put it on the back-burner for a few weeks before starting again.


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