Why Not To Worry When Baby Plays Favorites

When your infant or toddler seems to prefer one caregiver over another, it’s hard not to feel hurt. Although it is a common and normal stage of child development to play favorites with one provider, it is also common for the less-preferred adult to feel left-out. Sometimes understanding why a behavior is occurring can help beat back the challenges that accompany the behavior. Here we address some of the reasons why your child may be playing favorites with one caregiver and how you can deal without feeling burned.

Why your child prefers only one…

The attachment process between child and parent starts at birth.  Along the way, children begin to assert their independence from one or both parents as a way of saying, “I can do it by myself!” Often times, the child will leave out the parent who has less of a central parenting role. For example, if one parent stays at home and another works away from home, the child will often give preference to the parent at home. However, even if both parents work away from home, children will still commonly go through this stage. Most often, even with two working parents, one parent is still slightly more involved with the child care–whether it be with feeding, playing, or even just being more emotionally available (which is definitely hard after an exhausting day at work!). As long as both parents continue to encourage the child to interact with both of them, this is a phase s/he will mostly likely outgrow. In fact, you may later find that your child starts to prefer the adult who is not around as frequently.

Why your child still prefers only one even a few months later…

If you feel that your child has had a reasonable amount of time to outgrow this normal developmental stage of attachment to primarily one parent, it might be time to look at your parenting roles. This is NOT a time to point fingers. Simply put, however, it is time to evaluate some of the following reasons why your child continues to show preferential treatment.  Once you figure that out, you will better understand how to address the issue.

  • Sometimes the reason that a child leaves out one parent IS due to that parent’s behaviors–commonly what that parent is not doing. We can assume that this is unintentional, but for whatever reason, one parent may have become “the nice and fun one” while the other one bares the brunt of the disciplinary role. In this situation, it is important for both parents to reevaluate their role in creating this type of home environment and their assumed parenting roles. Often times these roles are unconsciously assigned and fulfilled–but everyone would be better served, baby included, by a more even and fair distribution.
  • The favorite parent reinforces the favoritism–whether inadvertently or purposefully. Who doesn’t like to be favored? Although it can cause stress in your adult relationships with any other significant care givers in the child’s life, sometimes being the favored adults can feel a little too good. If this sounds familiar, reflect on your own desires to reinforce this behavior. One important thing to remember is that it is not the role of the child to affirm the adult, or make them feel important, significant, and fulfilled. Having a good bond with your child can certainly do those things, but think about the missing bond and opportunity for your partner. If you think this is going on in your caregiving partnership, try to be receptive to feedback from your left-out partner and seek out other ways for self-fulfillment. Giving your child the opportunity to have some significant one-on-one time with your partner just may allow you the opportunity to go and rekindle friendships you may be missing out on or re-engage in hobbies long since abandoned after becoming a parent.

How to help your child share the love:

  • Encourage relationships with other significant adults

This may seem obvious, but recognize that a lot of times, the favored parent has become so used to being “needed” that they may have stopped trying to separate themselves from the child for a short period of time. You should do so gradually and based on your child’s readiness, but try taking short trips out of the house in order to give your child the opportunity to rely on other adults.

  • Do not try to sneak away when encouraging some separation

Sometimes parents think they are doing the right thing by leaving the house stealthily, believing that if they don’t make a big deal about their departure, the baby won’t either. This is usually incorrect. In fact, it is important for your child to learn and to feel secure in the fact that when my parent or provider leaves the house, they WILL come back! To drive this point home, tell your child when you are leaving, assure them that you will come back, and when you do get home, be sure to remind them that you came back as promised and are happy to see them! Once repeated several times, your child will learn to expect your return and experience less anxiety (if they did in the first place) when you are away.

  • Don’t let on when you feel “burned” by your child

If you’re the unlucky one that does not get as much attention at the moment from your child, try not to let on that it affects you. In the infant and toddler stage, children do not yet understand the complexity of how their actions might affect the emotions of adults. If you try to make them change through guilt or withdrawal, it will only reinforce their preference for the other person. Try to show your enthusiasm for the time you do spend with your child and let them know how special that time is to you.

  • Create new experiences to enjoy together

Once again, if you’re the one feeling left out, try to think of new ways to engage your child. Make a weekly “date” to go out to lunch, to the farmers market, or to a new playground. Soon, your child will come to look forward to this extra special time with you, and your partner may also look forward to the time away to catch up on other things.

Does your child prefer one parent? When did they grow out of it and what did you do to help? Though it can be hard not to feel hurt by your child’s preferential treatment, know that in most cases it’s passing.  Soon enough, they will be a teenager–likely preferring to not be around either of you! Try to embrace this challenge as what it is–a sign that your child is developing and growing older. Remember–often times the parent who is currently favored could use extra help and support from you since much of their attention now goes to the child. Channel your energy and support in helping your partner–someone who is very likely to both appreciate you and the extra help!

Looking for additional parenting tips and advice? Check out these other Daily Mom articles from our Parenting Section:

Photo Credits: Title image, St. John Photography (CC); Boy with father, Ashley Sisk Photography

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Katherine lives in Kansas City with her husband, toddler, and 3 furry children. When she is not at home with her daughter, she is finishing up her Ph.D. in psychology or working on one of her multiple half-finished art projects. She loves ceramics, crafts, fitness, paper mache, and pretending to learn French and Spanish.

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