What Your Child NEEDS Versus What Your Child WANTS!!

Dr. Corinne Masur

How do you know whether your child NEEDs or WANTs?

Recently, a mother in our parenting group asked a really good question:

Does her 19 month old need to be nursed several times during the night or is this something she WANTS but does not NEED?

During the same discussion, another mother asked when a baby’s need for immediate attention turns into more of a want? She knew that newborns need you to feed and comfort them immediately after they start crying — but when can you let them wait a while?

This discussion brought up a topic which I have been wanting to write about for a long time.

It is one of the things that is most confusing to parents — especially first time parents.

Opinion varies as to what constitutes a need versus a want.

But let’s start with the most concrete example: hunger.

Most experts say that by the time an infant has reached 13–15 pounds, they can safely sleep through the night without requiring a feeding. This is particularly true for formula fed babies and babies who have started on some solid food in addition to breastfeeding.

The age at which most experts suggest that your baby can manage to sleep through the night without undue hunger is between 4 and 8 months.

But what about the mother in our group who had a 19 month old? She felt unsure as to whether her baby was actually hungry several times each night or whether her baby was crying in order to receive comfort from her through breastfeeding at these times.

And this is exactly what all parents have to figure out. Does your baby or toddler or child wake up and then cry in the night because they are hungry? Because they are ill? In pain? Or because they want some comfort and companionship? And what should you do if it’s the latter?

Years ago we had a Mom in the group who used to ask the same question about her 7 year old — but during the day. Did he NEED her when he begged for her attention? Should she feel guilty when she set limits with him?

It is important for parents to dedicate some time to think about this question when they are having trouble sorting it out. Talking to a spouse, a friend who has had several children, an older relative or a professional is often necessary.

Guilt is one of the most likely culprits when a parent finds him or herself torn over whether and when to give to a child.

After the newborn phase (3–4 months) an infant CAN wait a little while to be fed or picked up or changed. Not an hour — but 10 minutes?


You CAN go to the bathroom, make a cup of coffee, take a brief phone call.

And at this age you CAN leave an infant on his or her back to play on a quilt or to do tummy time — and even if they fuss a bit, you can let them prolong their ability to play or hold up their head for just a few minutes longer than feels comfortable for them.

As your baby becomes a toddler and then a child, you will want to let them learn how to tolerate small amounts of frustration or delay. That way they will be able to manage their own boredom and hunger and unfulfilled desires as they grow up.

By this I mean all the normal things: if your child is hungry and wants a snack and it is a half hour before dinner, they can wait. If they cry, and you know they had a good lunch and a snack later on, you help them to understand that something good is coming and it will just be a little while longer and that they CAN wait. No guilt necessary. If they didn’t eat lunch and had no snack, well maybe you can set them up with a sliced apple or orange or carrot sticks…..but not the cookies or chips they were asking for.

And even later, at 7 or 9 or 15 — if your child wants your attention — and you know they are not hurt or ill or in the midst of a serious upset, again, you can ask them to wait. In fact, you can tell them that they have to wait if you are in the middle of something — but then be sure to get back to them when you are free and can give some time to them.

Guilt often leads to a parent thinking they are depriving their child of what they NEED. And when a parent feels guilty (maybe because they work full time and are away from the child all day or maybe for another reason known or unknown by the parent) it often leads the the parent feeling confused — AND sending confusing messages to the child — such as “I can’t play now….OK, I’ll play now but just for 5 minutes” etc. — you know the drill.

Giving in when your baby or child asks more of you than you feel you can give (like numerous night time feeding when they are over 8 months old or asking to play while you are making dinner or working or on the phone) can lead to a parent feeling resentful. And this resentment is bound to be communicated to your child in one way or another.

Another culprit that can lead to a parent feeling confused by what their child needs versus what they want is anxiety. It turns out that the toddler who was still asking for night time feedings at 19 months had had some serious medical issues at birth which led to trouble with feeding. With this kind of history, no wonder her mother was unsure when to stop night time nursing! She had been worried for her child’s well being for so long during her early week and months!

Try to sort out what your baby or child REALLY needs from what it is that they want and then set some limits accordingly.

So, what does this mean for the 19 month old I mentioned earlier? Well, that will be up to her parents. Perhaps they will decide that the situation is Ok as it is for now and they will allow the night time feeding to continue for a little while longer given her early struggles with feeding. Or maybe they will decide on some gradual night time weaning. Her medical issues are in the past and it is likely that her need at night at 19 months old is not for nutrition – but is more of a WANT for some Mommy-time. We might conjecture that what she needs at this point is help learning how to sleep through the night with confidence AND how to entertain herself or soothe herself back to sleep when she wakes up in the middle of the night.

And for the 7 year old, sorting out his wants from his needs might mean saying no and meaning it when he asks his mom to play while she is making dinner or having her coffee or when she is on the phone — because really, he wants her attention at these times but is not in dire need of her. On the other hand, children and teens of all ages DO have a need for nurturance and support – so his mother will need to devote some time to being with him during other parts of her day when she CAN give him her undivided attention.

Figuring out what your child wants versus what your child needs can make a huge difference in knowing what to do as a parent! Think about it!

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