With Dr. Vanessa LoBue, Professor of Psychology and Child Development Expert 

Dealing with the impact of a global pandemic has caused strain for everyone in a variety of ways. Most of us are tackling upended routines, some are facing financial uncertainty, and many people are coping with the painful loss of loved ones. As parents, it can be tough to maintain a sense of calm during this ‘new normal’, so it’s unsurprising that many kids may be struggling with feeling unsettled. With everything that’s going on, our kids may need extra reassurance that things will eventually get better. 

We spoke with Dr. Vanessa LoBue, an expert in child development, to learn how children’s natural inclination towards repetition can actually help them to feel safe. Good news if you’re on the verge of hiding the remote so your kid can’t play their favourite movie for the umpteenth time. Although it may be hard to stomach the sameness, perhaps we’ll have more patience for repetition if we understand why it brings our kids such comfort. In times like these, finding ways to calm our kids is definitely welcome. 

“Again! Again!” 

Every parent knows these words all too well. From insisting on the very same bedtime story night after night, to re-telling the same joke over and over, it’s clear that when kids find something they like, they want it again, and again, and again… 

Such a strong attachment to the familiar actually begins to develop even before a baby is born – in the third trimester of pregnancy. Fetuses can taste, smell and hear by this point, and so they are developing personal preferences based on flavours from the food their mum eats. Even certain sounds are preferred over others, as fetuses are able to recognise things like their mother’s voice, native languages, or stories that are read aloud frequently outside the womb. When a baby is born, it only takes a few hours for them to develop an affinity with their mum’s face. It’s possible this is a measure of safety, since babies create attachments with the people most likely to take care of them. 

As babies turn to toddlers and then older kids, this enjoyment of the familiar continues, with kids reading the same books, listening to the same songs and watching the same movies on repeat. When you consider the progression from fetus to child, it makes sense that this sort of repetition brings a sense of security and comfort. 

Learning on a Loop 

Repetition has even more benefits than making children feel safer. Studies have shown that kids learn better from reading a book over and over again than just reading it once or twice. Repeated exposure to words or actions leads to improved understanding and imitation. So if your kiddos beg you to read the very same fairy tale every night, they’re actually making more concrete connections in their brain every time they see the same words. Same goes for if your little one wants to belt out the same “Frozen 2” song until they’re hoarse. Every time they sing the same lyrics, they’re making memory links and learning more. 

When kids behave this way, they’re proving the old saying that ‘practice makes perfect’. Studies have shown that repetition can be critically important for learning in general. While grown-ups can pick up new info after seeing something once, when kids want to watch or read or play with something again and again, it’s their way of absorbing knowledge. That extra exposure might be just what kids need to learn new things. It might not be easy, but as parents, the benefit of all that repetition could be the security of knowing exactly what comes next (at least in one small part of our lives).

Speaking with Dr. Vanessa LoBue inspired us to have more patience with our kids when they insist on the very same things more times than we ever thought humanly possible. Although it might be annoying, it could also be precisely what our kids need to learn more efficiently, be reassured, and feel safer. In uncertain times like these, maybe a little repetition is the anchor families need to feel steady amidst the waves. 

Dr. Vanessa LoBue is Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of the Child Study Center at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. She regularly teaches courses on child development to both undergraduates and graduate students. Her research focuses on emotional development in infants and young children. She has a monthly blog on Psychology Today called “The Baby Scientist,” where she writes about research on child development for parents. She currently lives in New York, with her husband Nick, and her sons, Edwin and Charlie.