Toddler showing affection to pregnant mom by touching bellies
Photo courtesy of Beth Loster

The Ways Toddler Show Affection

If I were to list the aspects of parenting that make me overflow with joy and those that make me bananas, truly, at the end of the day, I'd pretty much have only one list. Sure, certain things I could definitely leave behind (I'm looking at you, snack tantrums), but for the most part, being a mom is a consistently weird intersection of feeling like the same things both grate at my soul and also would be impossible to live without. One such sweet/unbearable thing? My toddler's need to be constantly touching my body.

Melby is 21 months old and decidedly not a snuggler. She doesn't cozy in bed with my husband and me; she doesn't linger in our arms; she doesn't want to hold hands or exercise any sort of explicit outward affection without suggestion. She will definitely give kisses or hugs to familiar people if they are requested, but generally her snuggle factor is low. However, she does, somehow, still insist on being in physical contact with me as often as humanly possible.

We eat meals as a family, nestled closely on one side of a worn-out circular table. Melby sits between me and my husband, and, without fail, she places her right foot atop my thigh throughout the entire meal. Her chubby little toes tap against my skin, announcing their presence in the place of things, while she continues to eat and chatter and attempt to steal food from our plates that parentheses her own.


Similarly, she literally cannot read a book without sitting on my lap. At 35 weeks pregnant, my lap is now pretty insignificant in size. Often I try to extend a single leg and just tuck her into the space that should be my lap, but she readily expresses her distaste at not being in contact with as much surface area of my skin as possible. She adjusts herself again and again, until I concede and criss cross my legs beneath her, cradling her tiny body in the recliner chair of my own.

When I do yoga, she literally sits on my head any time it makes contact with the floor.

When I cook, she wants to be on the counter, dangerously flitting her hands throughout whatever knife-or-heat-wielding activity I'm doing, when I am in the bath, she wants to be in the bath, directly on top of me, when I shower, she stands at the lip of the bath, pushing the shower curtain back and reaching, desperately for me, when I stand, in her perception, idly (because why am I not doing something??), she demands being in my arms, when I do yoga, she literally sits on my head any time it makes contact with the floor. So, while she may not snuggle per se, she loves to be somehow, always, making contact with mama.

As I think most parents could agree, being touched constantly is charming in its own right, and also, at a certain point, totally maddening. The impulse to linger in the bathroom for some fleeting moments of bodily autonomy or to run screaming at the idea of ever being touched again is very real.

Though she's now terrifyingly close to 2 years old, a bonafide toddler, I forget, often, how small Melby really is. It was really just moments ago that the onset of this behavior was super intentional. My birth plan included the nonnegotiable element of immediate skin-to-skin contact. La Leche League, a reputable nonprofit that advocates for breastfeeding infants, when possible, says skin-to-skin contact within the hours closely following birth helps regulate infant breathing, temperature, heart rate, and blood sugar, reduces of postpartum hemorrhage for mother and crying in baby, and encourages an important bond between newborn and mama. It's easy to recognize how proximity to parents, especially the familiar scent and skin of the one that previously carried the infant for so many months, is soothing to newborns, and many experts tout the importance of physical touch for infants as it encourages brain development, emotional stability, and the ability to create a lifetime of secure attachments.

Kiddos often regress to a younger age's communication pattern and seek physical touch to gain comfort through contact with primary caregivers. It is based on them seeking a secure attachment and wanting to reconnect.

Clearly, those benefits don't end in infancy. Developmental psychologist, Alex Pruitt, sheds light on children's impulse to make physical contact with a caregiver: "Children continually ask for their needs to be met; babies cry, toddler scream and as kids as they age they (hopefully) use their verbal abilities. When caregivers attend to those needs appropriately and swiftly the child bonds well and creates a secure attachment which fulfills the child with safety, security and ways to organize his or her world."

Pruitt addresses how the concentrated attention children receive in early infancy often wanes as it becomes diluted by the other demands of a caregiver's everyday life. She says, "the weaning off the immediate attention they want from their parents is hard, especially when they want comforting. Kiddos often regress to a younger age's communication pattern and seek physical touch to gain comfort through contact with primary caregivers. It is based on them seeking a secure attachment and wanting to reconnect."

The not-a-snuggler clings to her best human. Photo courtesy of Beth Loster

When I consider it from this perspective, I realize how intuitively my daughter is working to reassure herself about her place in the world. She is in the midst of tremendous growth; she is growing out of clothes on the daily, acquiring new words by the fistful, and becoming ever more aware of surprisingly nuanced routines, emotions, and social expectations. Her world is exploding in size and complexity, and she simply wants to remind herself that she's secure within the ballooning sphere about her. Mama is there, she is safe, and the simplest way to achieve that remind herself is through literally grounding herself in my body. Her toes tapping on my leg are her metronome of security.

Pruitt goes suggests parents who feel overwhelmed by physical touch have "1:1 time with the kiddo, which includes touch like cuddle time, reading a book or playing a game."

"I also urge parents to examine how distracted they are when they are with their kids," she explains. "Parents can be in the same room with their kid while answering phone calls, texts, emails and folding laundry but this is not satisfying for the child so kiddo seeks more attention through touch or play."

And then, the zinger for a mom like me, who often prides herself on doing it all: "Multitasking never works well and leaves kids feel less important than we would want. I encourage caregivers to put down devices and chores and get down on kids levels; roll around on the floor, build blocks, compliment the kids and praise them for being awesome. Then you tell the child 'OK, now I have to do some work and I'll come back in a bit.' This way you are more mindful during each task and nothing feels watered down."

Her toes tapping on my leg are her metronome of security.

This recommendation feels searingly appropriate for a person like me. I am often, if not always, multi-tasking, or making the half-hearted stabs at it that psychologists insist isn't possible and whose attempts actually work to our detriment. I am also so close to having another child and am certainly consumed, totally at times, with the current physical demands of that reality, as well as the looming mental and emotional ones. It seems then, maybe my daughter isn't so obsessed with me; she's just asking for more quality stretches of undivided attention.

I will never wish Melby to stop touching me. Touch is a human imperative; it's essential for healthy development, secure attachment, and, simply, it can and does feel good. Melby is my best girl and being physically connected to her is joyful for me, a gift. But Pruitt's reminder is prudent: when the touch happens in excess — in a way that irks me — it might be time to examine the quality of my interactions with her.

I took her words immediately to heart. After dinner last night, we walked to the neighborhood loop of stores and let Melby have her first taste of ice cream. I watched with delight as peach ice cream rolled down her face, coated her chin, as she almost frantically appreciated the glory of refined sugar. We walked home in sticky heat and skin and flopped in the grass of our front yard. She laid on my head. I laughed and tickled her. It was a blur of effervescent baby laughter and itchy grass and hugging and unfiltered joy. I was there. I was 150 percent there, just loving my girl and that moment with her.

Seconds later, our neighbor and her young boy walked up to their own yard. Melby, always entranced by him, called his name and ran after him. I sat in the grass feeling miraculously full and weird and also alone. As fast as my girl needs me, holds onto me, she is also gone from me. I can imagine wanting nothing more. For her to find her safety, her reassurance, in my attention, my body, and then, once she's filled up, to watch her go.

For more pieces like this, visit Shiny Happies, our collection of the best parts of raising those little people you love.