16 answers

Strange Toddler Behavior...HELP!

I'm at a loss what to do about my 2 year old's recent strange behavior. This past week, he has been very resistant to going to bed and he gags himself (sticks his fingers down his throat) to make himself throw up. The first couple of nights, we would go in the room and have to change him and the bedding. He would think it was funny and of course was getting the attention he wanted. Last night I was at my wits end, and when he made himself throw up (several times, mind you!), I didn't clean it up and he slept in it all night. This was such a lovely sight in the morning, let me tell you. I don't know what to do. I am thinking of offering him an incentive if he doesn't throw up (stickers, etc.). Any one else have some ideas?? HELP!! I'm totally stressing out and I really appreciate all of the wonderful you mommies provide!

1 mom found this helpful

What can I do next?

So What Happened?™

Wow, I received such a wide spectrum of responses, and it was so helpful. I felt like such a bad mother after I didn't clean his crib, and I still feel guilty to this day! I asked myself the question, "What does my son need from me that he isn't getting?", as I figured his gagging was his way of showing me that he needed attention from mommy. I truly think that my son was showing some jealousy toward our 7 month old son. My husband and I have now pushed my toddler's bedtime later by a half-hour and both of us spend snuggly time with him. We read three stories, then it is bed time. This has worked like a CHARM the past three nights!! No gagging, no struggles. Such a simple solution, yet I was too stressed out to see it clearly. Thank you again, everyone...thank you!!!

Featured Answers

I think it's attention-getting behavior. And, remember, it's only been a few days. That's nothing.

I like Shane's idea, it's a good one, and I don't like punitive ideas like cold showers. (I tried a cold hose on one son once for pooping his pants, and I regret it.)

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Definitely consider how your daily routine may be affecting your son's ability to cope, as well as what impact the new sibling may be having. Up until now, the new baby was just that, and probably not as much of a threat as he is now that he's beginning to get around on his own more. I remember, even though there were 7 1/2 years between me and my sister, that when she was about a year old and beginning to be able to get into my things and 'bug' me, I thought for a while that I despised her... this same sweet baby sister that I couldn't wait to have be born the year before.
Don't use the cold shower approach. Just think what your reaction would be if you did something your husband didn't like and he shoved you under a cold shower to get your attention... not a pretty sight at all! I agree with the ideas that have been given to minimize your reaction to the boy gagging himself, and giving more attention outside of the situation. Someone has suggested that perhaps you need a more structured bedtime routine and that is a good possibility. It doesn't have to be elaborate, nor long, but just a routine that he can depend on night after night and know he has your total attention for that period of time just before he goes to bed. If possible, include your husband and the baby in the routine, but definitely work it out so that the baby is not included for part of that time, in order that your son can feel specially loved all by himself too. That may mean mom has a few minutes with him while dad watches the baby, and then trade off. Or you might have mom's night and dad's night and trade off that way. Whatever works out well for you and helps your little guy get over this habit and feel loved and protected.

1 mom found this helpful

I think it's attention-getting behavior. And, remember, it's only been a few days. That's nothing.

I like Shane's idea, it's a good one, and I don't like punitive ideas like cold showers. (I tried a cold hose on one son once for pooping his pants, and I regret it.)

so normal. My son, who is now 3, used to do this all the time. There have been previous posts about this and you'd be surprised at how many kids do this. First find out why he doesn't want to go to bed. I would also put him to bed and read him a story or sit with him for a few minutes. I feel bad that you had him sleep in it. Poor guy, my son did this a lot, but we never had him sleep in it, that is like when a dog poops in the house and then you rub his nose in it, doesn't work and humiliates him.

This is common for kids and a phase he will grow out of. Until then you need to not get mad, not let him sleep in it, and just deal. The less of a deal we made out of it, after he would gag himself, we would clean him and the mess up and go on like nothing happened. Eventually he stopped because it didn't change anything. It was a pain, but he was 2 and it was his way of communicating. Remember 2 year olds can't always express why they are upset and show it by throwingup, banging their heads, being mean etc.

Also, with a new baby, this his hard on kids for a while I would give him extra attention and love andhis own time with you and your husband. I bet that would make a difference.

Stop stressing, it will stop soon and this is the first of many, not fun things you and your children will got through. You can try and discipline him for it, but it won't change it. Good luck.

He may be getting his two year molars. Our son did this when he was 15 months old and we talked to the pediatrician about it and that is what the pediatrician told us at that time. They are bothering him but he doesn't understand the pain, discomfort and it is itchy as well so his way of dealing with it and trying to get to the discomfort is to gag himself. Good luck!

Hi T. - this sounds like strange behaviour indeed..... It must be very tiring to keep changing the sheets.

The only thoughts that I have are to look at it in the bigger picture of your son's whole day..... is he getting special 1:1 time with you during the day? Could he possibly be jealous of the baby? Maybe he has seen the baby spitting up / throwing up and you fussing over him?

Also - you say your house is very crazy and busy.... is it possibly winding your son up too much?

You could try introcuding a little gentle massage as part of his bedtime routine to help him calm down and fall naturally into sleep? Some gentle aromatherapy in his bath... like chamomile... or some music at bedtime.... to help him transition from going from 100mph to "OK - go to sleep now"

Good luck! Another Mom :-)

This sounds tough for you. Kids are so determined to get attention and control--they will do Anything in their tiny toolbox! Think of how little experience they have expressing their needs and negotiating for what they need and want.

Have you asked him why he does not want to go to bed? He may not know so you might have to think of some ideas...jealous of little bro? Scared of being alone? Nightmares? Just not tired? At just this age my daughter gave up napping and bedtime became so much easier for her. Do you think he'd do better without a nap?

Maybe it's time for a later bedtime. If he could help decide on a later time (give him choices to pick from) maybe he'd regain that sense of control over his life without the drama?

Maybe he'd like to sleep with you in the family bed in exchange for giving up the vomiting behavior?

I don't think his behavior is strange if you think about it from a control point of view. That's what two year olds are often said to be all about--autonomy and control. You could think of your son as precocious for hitting upon such a dramatic way to get attention! Maybe reframing the situation for yourself will defuse it a little and begin draining it of the power it currently has in the family. Then it wouldn't be nearly as fun for your son. ;)

Good luck and let us know how it goes.


I had a little girl I used to babysit for who did that too. I just had to get really stern with her and do somewhat like tv Nanny does with time outs. I'd stand at the door right after I put her down for naps and as soon as I heard her gagging herself, I'd walk in the room, rather abruptly which would startle her a bit, and with no words, no eye contact and a cold wash cloth in my hand I'd wipe her face and hand and walk out. I made sure she had nothing in the bed but a sheet on the mattress to minimize the mess. And if she still managed to throw up I would leave her and make a big deal about how messy it was and not a nice thing to do to the bed. I made it real clear to her that I was not happy. But as soon as we left the room I would drop it and let her have a nice happy time, and was loving and kind and fun. I dont want anyone to think I was a big monster and punished her for hours on end. Just at the moment, I made sure she didnt enjoy my attitude. She didnt do this gross habit long. Maybe thats why. My only other suggestion is, buy some little ski gloves,or boxing gloves. Get really thick, stiff ones and put them on your son with long sleeves over them and duct tape around his wrists to the shirt so he cant pull them off. He wont be able to get those in his mouth to gag himself and maybe he will stop. Im half joking about that, but who knows,, it might help!

I would talk to your child's pediatrician. Definitely.

It seems last month there was another momma that had a similar problem to yours. One idea was that when he gags himself, pull him out of bed and stick him under a cold shower. I don't think the stickers would work at his age. If he is doing it for attention he won't care about stickers.

I think that at two years old making him sleep in biological waste is mean and wrong. He is still very young and doesn't really understand how gross and hard he is making it for you. I understand how hard your situation is and I am not judging you at all, just thought that was a little harsh. But if you were at the point that you had to leave him be so you would not throw him out a window, good call. :)
I wouldn't plan on doing this every night though.
Try getting him really tired, play at the park hard right before dinner, then when it is time for bed and he is really tired talk with him about how he is getting to be a big boy and he can't do this anymore. Let him know that it is not ok, tell him what you expect from him. If he does do it again, take the sheets off and have him sleep on the cold plastic (cover him once he is a sleep) let him know that he was bad, but don't talk a lot, remove sheets and leave.
Hope this stops soon, hang in there!

Hi T.,

It makes me sad to know that he slept in it all night.

If he is having such a reaction to sleeping alone there may be something bigger going on. What recent changes have happened in your household? Working more hours, new animal, etc..?

This behavior is completely developmentally NORMAL and not at all strange! It is absolutely an attention getting behavior- at 2 years of age, attention is attention wether it is positively or negatively driven. This is in no way a testament to anything you are doing or not doing, but a clear case of your son testing your limits.

He has realized that his vomiting and gagging himself illicits a HUGE reaction out of you: no one likes vomit, especially the voluntary kind! The key to getting rid of the behavior is making it clearly known what the consequences will be if he DOES throw up, and then following through calmly EVERY TIME. Under no circumstances should you reward him for unwanted and inappropriate behavior - there should be no stickers. In this case, choose something that is important to him - tv time, dessert, that weekly trip to the park (SOME privilege or item that is meaningful or important that is NOT his security blanket or binky) and take it away when he makes himself throw up. The letting him sleep in it deal is GOOD, and you should still make him sleep in his vomit when he does it - but also make sure that he knows that, if he makes himself vomit, he will lose that agreed upon privilege the next day. Every time he does it, he loses something else: you have to make the cause and effect VERY clear - and follow through EVERY TIME.

The behavior may get worse before it resolves itself as he will want to test just how far he can push you before you give in. When he starts in with the gagging, remind him that if he vomits he will both sleep in it and have something taken away the next day, and if he continues - just leave the room. If he starts in the middle of your bedtime routine, cut it short and be done with it - do not give him the attention and feedback he is looking for.

My daughter did this too, and occasionally does it still when she throws a temper tantrum. Don't let him see how much it stresses you out - thats just fuel to the fire!

*Just as an edit, there is NOTHING neglectful, abusive, dangerous or mean about making him sleep in his own voluntary vomit. Really. Dont beat yourself up over it for a MOMENT.

Hi T.!

I believe it's time to establish a nightly routine that leads up to bedtime. The same 1 hour every night can do wonders for a child at bedtime. You know dinner, bath, storytime, kisses....

I think your problem is coming from the fact that he is having to share you more with his little brother. Sometimes our 1st child doesn't show those insecurities until later when they just are tired of sharing you and "just want their mommy to themselves".

Try to be sensitive to it, even as exhausting as it can be. I think it would help if you were the one to read him his stories at night. It's a great snuggle moment, and wonderful one-on-one time.

At 2 years old, I always counted down "5 minutes". It was never according to real time, but it was a signal that my boys learned early in their lives. And at 12 & 6, I still have no trouble leaving or going anywhere :O) In your case, you would say, "5 more minutes and we are going to bed"......"4 more minutes and we are going to bed"....and so on. This worked for me for bedtime, leaving McDonalds, park, or whatever! I began it when they were 2ish, and it tool them only a couple of time to catch on.

I am not sure a sticker reward system would work for his age, yet. I think all he may need is a little bit more of reassurance from you :O)

~N. :o)

my son used to gag himself whenever he was upset about something -- it started at dinner time when he didn't want to eat something. It started to become his coping mechanism because the first few times he did it we thought he was sick so instead of doing the thing he had to do (in this case, eat) he got lots of special attention from concerned parents. my husband realized what was going on and we started giving him time-outs when he'd start to gag himself. It eventually worked. Not sure how you would handle this at night, but i thought sharing my experience might somehow be useful. good luck!

Hi T.,

Toddlers have a way of acting out their feelings and expressing anxieties, terrors and frustrations through behavior and even as laughter and seemingly pleasure! As a therapist, I encourage you to think about what your son may be trying to communicate with you. He is under a tremendous amount of pressure due to the birth of your second child. No matter how "easy" this may seem to be, my guess is that he is struggling with lots of feelings of loss, anger, etc. and his only way to manage is to get them up and out. This feelings are totally NORMAL, but the behavior is, i'm sure, scary for you and him. Leaving him in his vomit, while perhaps teaching consequences, may also inadvertantly humiliate or shame him in his efforts to convey his vulnerability and his feelings. A great starting book is called The Emotional Life of the Toddler by Alicia Lieberman. While I respect your need to set limits, if you see that he is trying to communicate something very sophisticated in the only way he knows how--action--it may help you help him to stop this behavior and nurture his psychological and emotional self. Clearly there is something that he simply cannot digest on his own; he needs your help right now with the feelings inside of him. this may be the way he feels he can "get them out." You may get more traction with him in looking at his behaviors as symbolic, without escalating the problem further. Good luck. As another mom i know that this is difficult stuff. As a professional, I know strong feelings are an enormous part of life and toddlerhood. Also, if you look at other sites, two years is a very common time for all sorts of sleep crises to emerge. it's happened with every two year old I know.

What is your reaction when you walk in the room and see his mess. Perhaps he is using this to get that last minute attention from you. Next time when he does it, have him help clean up the mess. Also check to see if there is something in the room that could be making him nausaus.

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