16 month old gags himself & vomits in the playpen

Help please!
I have a son who is 16 months old. He likes to gag himself. He uses all 4 fingers and sticks them down his throat and has actually vomited on a few occasions. Mostly just gags though.

He mainly does this for attention to get out of where he is confined. (Either his highchair or playpen, etc.)

I have very firmly said no, bad boy, smacked his hand and nothing works. He will continue to do it until he gets his way.

I am a stay-at-home mom and he is with me 24/7 and is still going through some separation anxiety but he usually only does this while confined. I HAVE to confine him to get normal everyday things done for short periods because he climbs on everything, tries to get into everything which has caused a lot of problems. I have to move furniture around and actually get rid of my loveseat to make room so he will stop! He will get into the cords to everything, climb on top of the sofa and stand on the arm, etc. My living room is so barricaded it is not even funny.

Any advice you can give would greatly be appreciated!
Candy

Candy,
Sounds like you've got a wonderfully active little guy there. 16 month olds often LOVE to climb, and of course they get into everything. Unfortunately, their lack of judgment does mean they need constant supervision. That's just part of parenting a 16 month old.

Your son is not only active but also inventive; most kids don't gag themselves, even as a protest. I wonder if you can expect protest-fasting when you won't let him use the car when he's 16?

Seriously, though, your son is trying to tell you something and you're not listening. So he is making sure you listen by upping the ante. You sound like you just want his behavior to stop, and that's completely reasonable. But the way to get it to stop is not punishing him, it's listening to him and taking the need he is expressing seriously. Toddlers NEED to explore and move. He's outgrown the playpen.

You'll be happy to know that this stage doesn't last forever. Soon he will lose interest in climbing and sticking the fork in the light socket, and become passionate about other things, like chasing the cat. In the meantime, it would be good to do even more baby-proofing, so confinement can be minimized or eliminated. It's actually GOOD for kids to move freely around the house and explore (i.e., "get into") everything; it encourages their intellectual curiosity. Some experts think that free exploration raises the IQ.

The trick is to move anything breakable into high places that are out of sight, move linens, tupper-ware, pots and pans and other unbreakables into low drawers and shelves. Pack up every breakable you can do without and store it away for a year. If you can't move something dangerous (like cleansers under the kitchen sink), install a baby-proof lock. Bundle up electric cords into tough, flexible plastic tubing and duct tape it down to the floor. Earthquake-tether all furniture so it doesn't move when climbed on, babygate the stairs, put the garbage under the sink and babylock it, put corner protectors on every sharp corner. Anything that can't hurt him and that he can't break, don't worry about. He may make a mess pulling books out of the shelves and pans out of the cupboards, but it's actually great for his brain development and it won't last for long.

You're right to be concerned about the gagging behavior, which could easily escalate. Once little ones discover gagging and vomiting, they often use it in other situations, such as when they don't want to be put to bed or when they tantrum. It can become a bad habit that is hard to break, so you really need to do whatever is necessary to prevent him from getting into this habit. That means, preferably, not creating the conditions ever again which will encourage this behavior (i.e., confining him.) Otherwise, you are reinforcing this habit by stimulating him to repeat it, and you could be cleaning up vomit every day for years.

Unfortunately, there is no direct way to stop a child from gagging or anything else he wants to do with his own body. Hitting him, even on his hand, and calling him a Bad Boy will not change his behavior -- in this or in anything else -- but it will definitely undermine your relationship and make him more difficult to manage as he gets older. Please read the Toddler section on this website for more ideas on managing him effectively now that he's getting into the toddler years.

Some moms put vinegar or peppermint oil on the child's hands to stop them from gagging themselves, but I advise against that. Why? Because you will have to do it all the time, many times a day, for months. Because it will get into your child's eyes as he rubs them, and it really, really hurts. Because kids need to be able to put things into their mouths as part of exploring their world, and you will stop that process. But most important, because your child is telling you something. If you ignore it, either he will find a more upsetting way to tell you, or he will give up and turn his feelings inward. It is hard to say which would be worse.

Since we can't stop the gagging directly, I'm afraid you need to reconsider the confinement, which he is clearly reacting against. He may hate the playpen because he finds it confining, and it is certainly true that most kids, once they begin walking, refuse to be confined. He may simply be bored. But he may also need to be in closer proximity to you, in which case some of the suggestions below, like the backpack, might solve your problem. In any case, remember that you are entering a new stage with your son and what worked before is unlikely to work now. You may have to live differently for the next few months.

Here are your options, as I see them:

1. Try to make the playpen continue to work for you by shortening his playpen confinement to the least possible amount of time -- no more than once a day for 10 minutes. Put in fabulous toys that he can't play with any other time (use a couple at a time and keep recycling them so they hold his interest). Put music he loves on when he's in the playpen-- if possible, a kid's cd or tape player that he can operate. But if he gags there again, even once, give up on the playpen. It really isn't worth it. And it wouldn't have worked for much longer anyway, since he will be climbing out of it soon!

2. Ditch the playpen. When he's awake, just take him everywhere with you, even into the tub when you take a bath. In each room where you spend time (bathroom, kitchen,laundry), temporarily create a little play space -- a low shelf or drawer with books and toys, or a basket containing a mat to sit on and some toys. When he opens a drawer and starts throwing your clothes on the floor, redirect him to "his" drawer in your dresser, that has his own toys/books in it. If you have to "confine" him for a moment while you take something hot out of the oven, put him in his high chair. (Keep something he loves nearby to hand him while he's in the highchair.) But don't leave him confined in the high chair for more than a minute unless he's eating.

3. Keep your little terror busy "helping" you -- give him a child sized broom in the living room, let him wash the tub with a (clean) wet sponge, let him cut up a banana with a plastic knife, or help you match the socks. Save any tasks that you really can't do with him for when he's asleep. I guarantee you that involving him in all your activities will not only keep him too busy to get into trouble, but will boost his IQ and build a closer bond between you.

4. When you must do something that will distract you from your son and you don't think you can keep him safe, put him in a backpack. This is what I did when my son was this age, and he loved it because he got to watch everything from a high level.

5. Baby-proof his room thoroughly (which you have probably done anyway) and confine him there, with a babygate for very short time periods only. Be aware, though, that his won't work if he is expressing separation anxiety, because he will just vomit there.

6. Instead of a playpen, use the space for something he can climb on that will keep him busy and engaged, so he doesn't climb on things that are dangerous. If you have room, indoor play equipment such as a plastic climber would be perfect. You can find soft play climbers online that are made up of various pieces that fit together, so it can be dismantled and put away when you aren't using it.

I realize that ditching the playpen is not what you were hoping I would say. However, you really don't want him to start gagging himself to the point of vomiting all the time. I know of kids who did this for years; it is a hard habit to break and bad for their health, not to mention unbearable for the parents. Hopefully, your son's gagging will vanish along with the playpen. If it doesn't, it means he has now adopted this protest behavior and, unfortunately, your problem has gotten bigger. In that case, please write to me again and I will refer you for professional help.

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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