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100 Tips for Nannies and Families

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Why does my toddler pull her hair out while sleeping?

Your toddler may seek the sensation (touch) of holding onto or pulling something firmly.

Your toddler may be pulling out her hair as a self-comforting behavior.  Perhaps she is overly tired, has stress or anxiety, etc.  (Toddler stressors include teething, bringing home a new sibling, conflict within the family, and divorce.)

Either way, your first priority is to stop your toddler from continuing to pull out her hair.  You should not punish her for this behavior.  After all, she is not purposefully pulling out her hair: she is asleep, not conscious, when she is pulling out her hair.  Therefore, your approach should be to make pulling out her hair more difficult for her.  Here are some suggestions.

  • Keep her hair cut short; this will make her hair harder for her to grab.  (If you cut her hair, generously praise her pretty new hairstyle so that the haircut itself does not become a stressor.)
  • Sew soft sock puppets or mittens onto the ends of her pajama sleeves; this will make it harder for her to grasp and pull her hair.  (If you use sock puppets, make a game out of the puppets and incorporate that into her bedtime ritual.  If you use mittens, touch the mittens to her cheeks so that she can feel the comforting softness of the mittens; use this as a soothing part of her bedtime ritual.  If she refuses to sleep with anything covering her hands, slip the mittens or sock puppets on her hands as soon as she is fast asleep.)

Concurrently, you will also need to do a little sleuthing to find out if your toddler is feeling stress or anxiety.  You may want to spend some extra quiet time with her each night, just bonding and connecting.  Ask her questions to understand how she experiences her world.  How was her day?  What went well?  What didn’t?  What made her feel satisfied or happy?  What made her nervous or worried?  Discuss whatever she mentions in response.  When she shares her stressors with you, comfort her.  For example, you may say, “Yes, I thought it was worrying you that Daddy was diagnosed with cancer.  It is a big deal, for sure.  However, we’re doing everything the way the doctor says we should, and we believe that Daddy will be just fine again . . . no more cancer.  It’s just going to take some time, but we think everything will be ok.”

You will also want to provide her with something she can sleep with that she can hold onto firmly.  This “snuggle buddy” should not have hair, fur, or faux hair or fur, as that can invite the perpetuation of the behavior that you are trying to end.  A snuggly stuffed animal that is not furry is a commonly used option.

And then you hold steady . . . continuing your course . . . watching to see if your toddler’s sleep-time behavior changes.  Toddlers’ hair-pulling behavior typically fades on its own, without the need for medical intervention.  However, if the behavior persists for a protracted period of time, your toddler may have trichotillomania.  If you believe that your toddler may have trichotillomania, you are encouraged to visit with her pediatrician.

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