Q&A: an uncomfortable lovey

Elizabeth writes:

"This problem is really pretty funny, except that it's getting less andless so to me.

My eight-month-old son is obsessed with my hair. I have fine hair that goes about to the bottom of my shoulder blades. Every time I pick him up, he grabs a handful of hair and sticks his thumb in his mouth. It's pretty much the only time he sucks his thumb any more, but if he can get my hair, that's the immediate next move. If I try to tie it back or braid it, he gets a handful from near the scalp and pulls as hard as he can, and it hurts. Plus I always seem to have wispies for him to grab - my hair resists being confined. When I pry it out of his hands, he starts sobbing. Every time I hand him to someone, I have to pry his hands open to get my hair back before I can move. (My husband is used to this routine and doesn't try to whisk him away, but I've been dragged by the baby clutching my hair many times by other people who don't know that they have to wait for this step.) When I lay him in the crib, he can be totally asleep, but as I stand up and the last strands pull out of his hands, he wakes up and sobs.

It's pretty clear that my hair is functioning as a lovey for him. But this cannot go on. It hurts, it makes it hard for me to hold him or nurse him or anything - it's unmanageable. But I'm afraid to cut it off (and I don't really want to, although I'm willing if I can solve the problem) without having some kind of substitute for him. I have looked for a stuffed animal or something that has long "hair," but apparently nothing feels like mine, because he's not interested.

What do I do? His sister never had a lovey, and I don't really know what to do with a kid who does. Can I redirect it? Should I just slather Anbesol on my scalp and hope he outgrows it? Help!"

There are parenting experts who will tell you to just suck it up because your son clearly needs the security of your hair right now. And there are parenting experts who will tell you that you need to show your child his place by cutting him off from holding onto your hair immediately.

That's why it's nice not to be an actual expert--I get to look at the problem from a bunch of different angles. And it seems to me that this is an opportunity to start helping your son with the give-and-take that all humans have to learn. He is extremely important, but so are you. And he can't do something that causes you pain for no good reason, but you can probably hold on long enough to find something to transition him to a more practical lovey.

He's not going for the loveys with hair, which makes me think he doesn't want to be tricked. (This seems to be similar to kids who won't take a bottle because they don't like to be tricked, but will drink out of  cup instead.) I'm wondering if you could find a lovey that would have a similar intensity of sensation. I'm assuming your hair feels pretty silky, so maybe something either smooth (like metal) or something else very tactile, like a koosh ball or wooden spoon handle or piece of wide satin ribbon might do it. When you find something he'll take, make sure you get 3 or 4 of them.

Once you've found something he'll accept, even if he still has a clear preference for your hair, you're going to have to try to transition him. The first step is to talk to him about it, about how grabbing your hair hurts you, so he should grab onto the lovey instead. Once you've talked to him about it a few times, it's time to stop him from touching your hair and put the lovey into his hands every time he tries to grab your hair.

Now, if it were me (and it's not, it's you), I'd go all GI Jane and buzz my hair off to really provide the opportunity to reinforce the new pattern and make the old pattern impossible. (Remember, though, that getting divorced has given me much less concern for what other people think of me, so I'd be fine walking around with a buzz cut. I'd just have to wear a hat everywhere until the weather got warmer.) If you don't want to cut off your hair, you should wear some kind of tight-fitting hat that he can't burrow under easily.

By doing this gently (and talking to him about it first) you are showing him that you respect him and that his needs are important. But by pushing to wean him off your hair, you're showing him that you're important, too, and that he can love you but he can't hurt you. (Once you wean him off your hair and help him with this balance, he'll be more emotionally advanced than the average 19-year-old...)

Oh, and he's about to go through a developmental spurt/sleep regression (usually around 9 months), so start on this ASAP, or you may end up having to wait 4-6 weeks until he's through the spurt before you can make any progress.

Has anyone else been in a situation in which something important to your baby has been untenable to you? How did you deal with it?