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16 month old pulls hair

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Dr. Laura,
My son is 16 months old and we have a hair pulling problem. He has always been into pulling my and my husband's hair, even from the time he was a small infant. However in the last months, I feel the pulling is almost like an urge that he can't resist and it's definitely a self-soothing thing for him. Our pediatrician said I should put him down and say no every time he pulls him hair but I find that quite impossible. So I'm not sure if I'm not being consistent...Sometimes I tell him to pat my hair softly and show him but that has little impact. Sometimes I put him down and sometimes I pull his hand away and tell him - We don't pull hair. That hurts Mommy when you pull my hair. And other times I just let him do it, say when he's falling asleep, or we're in the car and he's tired or cranky.

I've read a bit online about Trichotillomania but he seems too young for that. I'm just wondering why he's doing this. Is it stress and do I need to encourage other ways for him to self-soothe? Is he needing affection or comfort? I try to give him as much as possible and his daycare teachers are very loving. He's very active so it's not always easy to get a cuddle in.

He's a generally active, healthy and cheery toddler who's developing very well. I've tried to think if this started in conjunction with an event. However the hair pulling started before he started daycare at 10 months (short days / 4 days a week) and before our breastfeeding relationship ended 2 months ago.

Another thing I've noticed is that it seems he always needs to have his hands busy. I lay him down in his crib on a knitted blanket and he often likes to fall asleep playing with the threads. I have also given him shaggy stuffed animals which he likes however if I'm near, he'll much prefer a handful of my hair.

I've pretty much tolerated the hair pulling up to now but am worried this habit may not go away naturally and that I might need to encourage him to find other self-soothing methods. He already uses a soother. As well, I'm really tired of having my hair tugged and pulled out. It makes holding him and cuddling with him less enjoyable than it could be. I want to enjoy close moments where I'm not being physically hurt!!!

We still co-sleep a little bit but he would be in our bed a lot more if he didn't pull my hair. I now try to move him back to his crib after his nightly waking(s) because otherwise he can spend an hour pulling my hair and I can't sleep like that. I'd really appreciate your advice. I'd like to move him away from this habit in the most loving way and get to the source of this habit and help him be as happy and secure as possible. Thank you!


I can understand why you're tired of having your hair pulled!

It sounds to me like your son has gotten attached to your hair as a comfort mechanism, like a lovey. I don't think you have to worry about the source of this habit. He's a very active little guy, full of energy. And he really likes to have his hands occupied. So it makes sense that he would find himself a lovey that he can fondle and twiddle. As you say, in his crib he plays with the blanket threads. But of course when he's in your arms, your hair would be most enticing of all. After all, it's attached to the center of his universe -- You! A lovey, by definition, is something you love because it soothes you. So your hair certainly qualifies. (And I know of many babies who are attached like this to their mother's mole, or armpit, or the other nipple, if they are nursing.)

The question is how you can help him find another way to soothe himself. I agree with you that this habit won't go away by itself. In fact, since it started at nine months and he is now 16 months, he's had it for half his life.

I would suggest that you begin wearing a nursing necklace, and gently redirect his hand to the necklace whenever he aims for your hair. You'll want to tie your hair back, of course, and if you can put it in a bun and cover your head with a scarf, that's even better. Nursing necklaces aren't just for nursing, they are terrific, safe distractions for little ones. There are a couple in my Baby Shop at the link below, but I think they are readily available nowadays.

When you redirect your son's hand, he will probably cry. That's ok. Naturally, he is disappointed not to be able to find his special lovey. He may even cry a lot. As long as you hold him and listen and empathize, that will not hurt him. He may cry over and over, for several days, as he gets used to this new rule. Stay kind and firm. Your goal is to be like the wall -- he can push, but it will stay solid. You don't have to be defensive, or angry, or "teach" anything. Just don't let your hair be available (it should stay covered in the scarf) and redirect his hand to the necklace. Empathize with his crying: "I'm sorry it's so hard....You miss my hair... Here's your necklace." In fact, he may use the opportunity to offload any other anxieties he has, which will help him be happier and healthier.

So if you stay compassionate, and accept his crying, he will eventually accept his new lovey, which will be the nursing necklace. As soon as he does, I'd advise you to buy another exactly like it, just in case it breaks or gets lost.

What if he doesn't accept the new necklace lovey, and keeps fighting to get to your hair? The obvious answer is to cut your hair. I know that's a radical step. But hair does grow back, and this will obviously solve the problem.


Dr. Laura

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