Should my toddler be dressing themselves?

From jeans pulled on backwards to zipper meltdowns, when toddlers try to dress it’s always exciting. It often takes long enough – and feels hard enough – that it’s easier for you to step in and dress Baby yourself. But should they be dressing themself independently?

Overall, self-dressing is an important developmental step for toddlers – but what they can handle depends on their age and developmental abilities.

At what age should toddlers learn to get dressed?

Like many life skills, learning how to dress and undress is a process it can take toddlers several years to reach the end of. In general, children under two get started by helping take off their socks and shoes. By age five, children should be able to get themselves dressed and undressed on their own. In between, they’ll take on more zipping, snapping, and buttoning duties as they grow and develop. Undressing is the skill that most toddlers master first, but as they grow, holding up their arms to pull a shirt over can easily turn into putting on a shirt solo, before too long.

It’s all about those motor skills

There’s more involved in pulling on a skirt or slipping off a sweater than meets the eye – like being able to bend, balance steadily on one foot, flex each knee, grasp, pull, and more. It takes a combination of fine and gross motor skills – from zipping up sweatshirts to stepping into pants – to get dressed each morning, and toddlers acquire these skills at their own pace. Frustration also comes into play when Baby wants to be able to button their sweater before they are able to.

  • Fine motor skills: Hand and finger movements play a big role in a toddler’s ability to dress themself. At around age three, Baby will probably have enough finger dexterity to button something with larger-sized buttons. By four, fine motor skills have progressed enough that they may be able to manage buckles on belts and shoes.
  • Gross motor skills: Baby’s gross motor skills will be strong enough to let them play a part in the dressing and undressing process at an even younger age. When they were about two, they could probably take off jeans or a sweater that had been unbuttoned for them all on their own. Over the next year or so, their skills will grow until they can do even more by themself, including taking off pants or shorts, or slipping on a new pair of shoes.

How can I get my toddler more involved in getting themself dressed?

Most toddlers are eager to try to do anything “by myself,” so parents and caregivers may be able to encourage dressing skills by playing to this desire for independence.

  • Make sure clothes are age-appropriate: Small zippers or smooth, rounded buttons may be too frustrating for toddlers who are just starting to try to dress. Picking out easy-on, easy-off pieces of clothing can help boost your little one’s confidence.
  • Allow for mix-&-match: When young children begin dressing themselves, they tend to put their own spin on fashion. Whether Baby chooses stripes with plaids, one red and one orange sock, or two different sandals, focus on what they accomplished, not the final ensemble.
  • Pick tomorrow’s clothes at bedtime: Invite Baby to pick out clothes for the next day the night before. they will be able to look forward to putting on their new shorts and favorite t-shirt, which can help jump-start the morning routine.

Learning to dress and undress is one of the earliest self-care skills toddlers learn, and while it may not be one you spend too much time thinking about in your adult life, it’s one that you use every day, and once Baby gets started, it’s one they will use every day, too! For now, though, they probably still need your help for a little while.

  • “Hand and Finger Skills of Your Preschooler.” Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5 American Academy of Pediatrics. 11/21/2015
  • Charlina Stewart. “Teaching Your Preschooler to Dress Himself.” 8/27/13.
  • Lauren Weichman. “Dressing Skills: Developmental Steps for Kids.” North Shore Pediatric Therapy. 11/9/12.

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