Teaching children to dress themselves

If your mornings are a frenzy of getting ready and rushing out the door, you’re not alone.  

Amidst the chaos, just in an effort to make it out the door, there’s a good chance you often find yourself feverishly zipping up little coats and maneuvering tiny feet into shoes for Baby so the two of you can make it to your destination on time. In the moment, it can be easier to think about the fact that you’re just on the edge of late than it is to think about the skills Baby builds when he is pulling on his shoes so agonizingly slowly.

Children learn how to do things by doing those things on their own, so while it seems natural to take dressing Baby into your own hands – after all, you’re so much better at it than he is – it may get in the way of his development of those very same skills. It may take up some extra time as he learns the basics, but once he masters the skill, it will be one task you won’t have to complete for him in the morning.

Here is a list of what Baby will likely be capable of at each age, and what you can do to help promote self-dressing as he grows.

Age 1

One-year-olds aren’t ready to learn to dress themselves yet, but they can start to learn to undress. Chances are, Baby will be able to remove his own shoes and socks at this age, but will not be able to put them back on just yet. He should also begin putting his arms into his sleeves once you put on his shirt, and pushing his legs into pantholes. Since dressing skills are limited at this age, one way to get a head-start is to try working on his wardrobe vocabulary instead. That way, when he is ready to start taking a more active role, the two of you will know how to talk about it together. As you dress Baby, you can start to identify the clothing items to familiarize him with the names for each article.

Age 2

Many parents begin potty training at or around this age, and with that comes a lot of pulling pants up and down. You’ll be able to keep it a little simpler by opting for pants with elastic waistbands instead of those with zippers and buttons. Most children lack the fine motor skills needed to master zippers, buttons, and other more complicated clasps until closer to age 4. Toward the end of this year, Baby should be able to take off his coat and try to put on his socks.

Age 3

This is the age when you can start backing away and letting Baby take the reins a bit more, as he will be able to put on his own shirts, and will also be starting to master getting on his own shoes, although, of course, tying those shoes’ laces will come much later (closer to age 6 or 7). Baby will also start experimenting with buttons and zippers at this age, and may be able to fasten large buttons by the end of the year.

Getting dressed effectively takes time – there are such a large number of tasks that need to be mastered. By age 4, Baby will start experimenting and possibly engaging zippers and smaller buttons. Come age 5, Baby should be able to fully dress themselves independently, though fastening hooks and buckles may take another couple of years.

As he learns, you can encourage Baby by offering praise as he completes a new task. That doesn’t mean you can’t step in and offer direction if he is having trouble, though – your help is one of the most important things he is going to depend on as he learns, right alongside the independence to try out those skills for themselves. Soon enough, he will have mastered the process, and the next step in the dressing battle will be choosing an appropriate outfit for the weather. Ready to pry his favorite winter hat out of his hands on the way to the beach?

  • Developmental Milestones: 3 to 4 Year Olds.” HealthyChildren. American Academy of Pediatrics, November 21 2015. Web.

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