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Infants and toddlers

The first three years of life are filled with amazing and rapid changes across every aspect of human development. At the core of infant and toddler development are the relationships these young children form with one or more primary caregivers, usually their parents. These early parent-child relationships form a foundation for the child’s trust in other people, feelings of self-worth, and sense of competence.

Babies are fabulous learners, and they learn by doing. Play is serious work for these little people, and in their play they explore the world like scientists – looking, talking, touching and moving. Keeping up with infants and toddlers is a lot of work for any parent, but watching their incredible development unfold over this relatively brief period time is a terrific source of amazement.

Typical development

  • Relationships are built up over time based on day-to-day caregiving and time spent with their caregivers. These day-to-day experiences of delight and love provided by their parents or other caregivers help infants build a foundation of trust in other people and a sense of self-worth.
  • Over the first six months, infants learn to recognize and show a preference for their primary caregivers. They are more easily soothed by these familiar individuals, and tend to react more positively to them.
  • By the second half of the first year of life, infants have developed a primary attachment relationship. That is, there is one special person who is involved in their daily care who becomes the child’s “go to” person in times of distress or upset, or for comfort or protection.
  • It is at this point that infants may develop stranger anxiety, which is a natural and biologically-based tendency to show apprehension or fear around unfamiliar people. Infants may show anxiety or distress when they are separated from their attachment figure, as they rely on this person to be their “secure base” for comfort and protection. The baby relies on the attachment figure to help him/her feel safe to explore the world.
  • During the toddler period (approximately 18 months to three years), children increasingly develop the ability to regulate some of their own behavior, although they continue to need a great deal of help from their parents.
  • Tantrums are common at this stage. Children are beginning to assert their independence and feelings of competence. For example, they may begin to be more assertive with statements such as “no!” or “do it myself!”
  • Children at this age also begin to show an interest in other children, moving from more solitary play to playing alongside (but perhaps not yet collaboratively with) other children.
  • Toddlers are not particularly good at sharing. This is not because they are selfish. Sharing skills develop with time, and with patient assistance from those helping them to learn.
  • At this stage, children often enjoy rough-and-tumble play with parents and peers, and are for the first time able to show concern regarding others’ distress.
  • Though toddlers may at times seem more comfortable venturing out to explore than their younger infant counterparts, they continue to rely on their primary caregivers to feel safe and secure.

Common post-deployment reactions

  • Infants and young children will vary in how they react to their returning parent.
  • Very young infants (0-12 months) will not know the returning military parent, and will need time to develop familiarity. Because the very young child has not yet built a relationship with the returning parent, it is likely that he/she will show some signs of stranger wariness, including pulling away, fussing or clinging to the parent who was the primary caregiver during deployment.
  • Toddlers are also likely to respond to the returning parent as an unfamiliar adult. They may, for example, hide from the newly-returned parent.
  • The heightened emotion surrounding the reunion may be simultaneously exciting and confusing for the young child, who may show his/her uncertainty by temporarily regressing in some areas. For example, the child may temporarily experience changes in eating or sleeping routines, such as wanting another bottle or wanting to sleep with parents. Toddlers who have been potty trained may have a temporary increase in toileting accidents as well.
  • Toddlers may show greater fear of separation from the familiar parent, or temporary increases in shy or withdrawn behavior. They may seem more easily frustrated. Those reactions can lead to more tantrums and temporary increases in aggression, including hitting, yelling or biting.
  • These reactions tend to be temporary and resolve after a brief period of time as the child builds familiarity with the returning parent and family routines are re-established.

Strategies for parents

  • Go slowly. Your young child will get to know and warm up to the returning military parent at his/her own pace.
  • To help this process, the returning parent can slowly increase involvement in daily routines such as bathing, reading, feeding, playing.
  • Keeping established routines, especially around bedtime and mealtime, can help reduce a child’s confusion and help him/her feel more comfortable as important relationships are re-established.
  • Playing games such as peek-a-boo or hide-and-go-seek can help young children cope with concerns about being “away from” special others by demonstrating that they continue to exist even when “out of sight”.
  • Be patient. Over time, young children can build familiarity, learn to trust, and establish a special connection to their returning parent.

Red flags

  • Increased and ongoing clinginess, crying, and whining
  • Sustained or high levels of aggressive behavior
  • Sustained or notable withdrawal from other people
  • Showing less interest in fun activities
  • Displaying more frustration and/or showing more difficulty when being comforted
  • Returning to earlier stages of toileting (e.g., frequent “accidents”), feeding, or sleep difficulties

While these behaviors may be typical short-term reactions, if they persist over a couple of months, they may indicate that the child is having a hard time with the transition. Parents may benefit from outside guidance regarding how best to support the child with these challenges.

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