toddler dressed up
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Your toddler’s unique dress sense

Your toddler’s unique dress sense

One of the most exciting things about Baby’s growth is watching their personality start to grow and assert itself. As they start to show more preferences and expressing more opinions, though – with or without words – you and they also get brand new opportunities to disagree in ways you never have before, especially when it comes to clothes and food.

Picky eating is a phase that parents dread, and it’s widespread enough that, even though plenty of kids never go through it, parents are rarely surprised when they do. Picky dressing, on the other hand, can be a little bit more of a shock. Whether your little one likes to cycle through Halloween costumes for every day of the week, or won’t change out of the same ratty pajama top, there are a hundred different ways a toddler’s sense of style can differ from yours.

Why does my toddler want to dress like they're about to run off and join the circus? 

There are as many reasons a toddler might choose to get stubborn about their clothes as there are toddlers, but there are a few common themes that come up on a fairly regular basis, and by sheer coincidence, they all start with the letter C.

  • Control: Your toddler is just learning what it means to make choices, and they doesn’t have a lot of opportunities to exercise this new ability. Baby may be enjoying the sense of power and cause-and-effect that they get from making choices about their wardrobe. Getting to make those choices will help them build healthy self-esteem, and improve their decision-making ability.
  • Comfort: Toddlers who face big or scary changes in their lives – and for a toddler, something as big as switching caretakers or as small as switching beds can count as a scary change – don’t have a lot of chances to change their environment in ways they can take comfort in. When they’re looking for ways to process new, frightening emotions, they may latch onto individual pieces of clothing. On the other hand, they may take comfort in the control they get over their wardrobe by being incredibly picky about what they wear.
  • Coziness: Alternatively, rather than looking for emotional comfort from wearing a specific piece of clothing, your toddler could have a physical objection to certain pieces or types of clothes. Some children are more sensitive than others to the itch of a scratchy tag on the back of their neck, or the seams of socks pressing in against their feet. Toddlers may not know how to express this discomfort, they just know they don’t like what they’re feeling. With a little trial and error, you’ll probably be able to figure out what the problem is and fix it.
  • Context: Toddlers live in the moment – if Baby is warm and cozy now, they may not want to put on uncomfortable, bulky layers on the off chance that they will be cold in the future – even just a few minutes into the future, when they two of you head out the door.

Coping strategies

Knowing why your toddler is acting the way they are about their clothes doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. You’ve still got to be out the door in 15 minutes with a (hopefully fully dressed) toddler in tow, right? Luckily, there are a few strategies that could help.

  • Limited choices: Your little CEO still gets the satisfaction of setting up their little corner of the world the way they want it, but you can veto some of the more outlandish choices before they’re even of the table. This can take the form of offering the choice of two or three pieces or outfits you’ve already picked out, or just letting Baby loose on a drawer full of acceptable options. It could get a little messy, but if you’ve already vetted a drawer full of clothes, they can’t pick anything too catastrophic.
  • Travel not-so-light: Though it’s not a habit you’ll want to keep up until Baby is a teenager, there’s nothing wrong with using a little foresight in these toddler years and packing, say, a warm jacket, or a pair of more sensible shoes to carry with you on an outing. Baby will probably be delighted to change into that comfy pair of sneakers once the novelty of wearing shiny rain boots on a sunny day wears off.
  • Set the stage: If there’s an event coming up that it’s really important for Baby to wear a specific outfit to, like a wedding, pick a time when they are more likely to be groggy and docile. Early in the morning, and right after a nap are good bets.
  • Pick your battles: While you may or may not love some of Baby’s more out-there style choices, letting them make those choices boosts their confidence and sense of self, and helps them learn about making decisions and living with consequences. The toddler years won’t last forever, but the tools you help Baby build now will.

  • “Cross gender behavior of children, including cross dressing.” Women’s and Children’s Health Network, Parent and Child Health, Child and Youth Health. Government of South Australia, July 21 2016. Web.
  • Lisa Belkin. “Preschool Wardrobe Wars.” New York Times. New York Times, February 28 2011. Web.
  • Raising Children Network. “Teaching your child how to get dressed.” Raising Children. Raising Children, October 26 2015. Web.
  • Melissa A. Kay. “What to Do When Your Child Refuses to Put on Winter Clothes.” Understood: for learning and attention issues., November 24 2014. Web.

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