A wiggly toddler is not an anomaly, and it's why diaper bags are full of Goldfish crackers and applesauce pouches to convince toddlers to just sit still already. But do they ever? It's a constant battle parents of tiny humans know all too well, and it's a running joke for everyone. Toddlers sit down, stand up, twist, shake, wiggle, and move at the most inconvenient times, and pretty much every parent knows what it feels like to beg them to stop and be completely ignored.
Basically any time you don't want your toddler to be moving, they're going to move, but experts say this is totally normal.
"As the name would imply, toddlers like 'to toddle.' The name is generally given to children between the ages of 1 and 3 years of age, a time at which children are becoming more mobile, learning to walk, run, jump, and climb," Dr. Melissa Liggett, Ph.D., developmental psychologist at Children’s National Hospital tells Romper. "These new motor skills take practice, and children do this moving about their environment — running around their space, climbing up and down stairs, and onto and off of furniture. And as they become more mobile, children find that there are new places, objects and people to explore, so with their inquisitive nature, it can be hard to keep them in one place for long!"
As they explore, some toddlers seem to whir around without ever stopping. While they're capable of sitting still, many toddlers are just not inclined to do so, which can be extremely frustrating (like pull-all-of-your-hair-out frustrating) for parents and caregivers. This frustration sometimes ends up with caregivers creating labels for these children's behavior based on their non-stop movement. If you walk into any day care in the country, you'll likely notice a variety of different activities happening — running, jumping, climbing, or simply mulling around are all typical.
Pediatrician Dr. Jarrett Patton says that varying degrees of activity levels during toddlerhood is natural. "Most people think temperament is a synonym for mood. Your mood is a part of your temperament, but there are many more characteristics, like activity level. Children can have different activity levels (low, medium, or high) that characterize themselves. This is why some toddlers are always moving and some can be more sedentary."
The reasons for their varying activity levels are as different as the toddlers themselves, according to Liggett.
"Some children are simply more motor driven and by nature enjoy move physical activity," Liggett explains. "High levels of activity can also be a sign that toddlers are not getting enough sleep at night. It seems counterintuitive that a tired child would actually increase their level of activity, but some children 'rev up' before crashing out. Other children may be more active because there are sensory inputs from their environment that are distressing to them, such as loud noises, bright lights, or too much activity, or they are feeling other stress or anxiety. Helping those children find a quiet space and an activity to help reduce their stress can help calm their movements."
Regardless of whether your toddler's natural activity level is extra high or is less than others, Liggett says that each toddler is experiencing significant emotional and physical growth at this age, so exploring their environment is essential to their development, even if it feels like you're constantly battling with them when they won't sit still or are getting into absolutely everything. While you definitely want to make sure they're safe (no, you may not climb up the Christmas tree), encouraging their natural curiosity and movement can help foster a toddler's independence.
"Allowing children to explore safely gives them an opportunity to ask questions and figure out the answer, which improves their problem solving skills. When they are successful at finding the solution to a problem or mastering a particular movement, their sense of self-confidence and independence increases, which fosters social-emotional development," Liggett tells Romper. "And naturally all the large and small muscle movements needed for physical exploration help improve gross and fine motor skills."
Keeping your toddler moving daily is key to a healthy development, Patton tells Romper, and should continue throughout childhood. "Toddlers and young children should have active play daily. This helps their development while helping them keep a healthy weight. As they get older, they will appreciate activities that keep them moving, like sports clubs or exercise."
Dr. Melissa Liggett, Ph.D., developmental psychologist at Children’s National Hospital
Dr. Jarret Patton 'Doctor Jarret', pediatrician