Some milestones, like a first tooth coming in, are going to happen to Baby whether you’re encouraging them to or not. Others, like climbing stairs or riding a tricycle, won’t happen until they're been given the chance to practice, and maybe also been taught how. The type of skills that are called “self-care skills,” which toddlers use to become more independent from their parents as they grow, like dressing themselves, tend to fall somewhere in the middle – many toddlers become interested enough in them to want to try for themselves, but children whose parents are quick to feed and dress them themselves may not begin to try on their own as early.
Still, there is a fairly predictable timeline for the way toddlers learn how to dress and undress, give a little time for not being interested in dressing, or take a little for tots who want nothing more than to be naked as soon as they can manage it.
Dressing and undressing requires toddlers’ gross motor skills, fine motor skills, and growing cognitive abilities, as they learn the order that clothes need to go on, and how to use their bodies to do so. This means that not every skill a toddler needs to dress and undress themself appears at once. Usually, toddlers gain some of the gross motor skills to do basic, big movements needed in dressing first, followed by cognitive skills and interest, more refined gross motor skills, and finally, last of all, the fine motor skills needed to handle delicate processes like button or zippers.
- 0 to 1.5: In the last year and a half, your toddler may have started to do some basic movements to help you get them dressed, like sticking out their foot for a sock, or holding up their arms so you can pull a shirt over their head. On the other hand, many toddlers are much more interested in undressing than getting dressed at this age, even if they have some of the early, basic, abilities. This may mean they start by taking off their hat or socks, but by this age, they might be learning how to take off easy, bigger things like loose, pull-over shirts, so watch out!
- 1.5 to 2.5: Over this year, Baby may have gotten to the point where they were helping you both dress and undress them. You can encourage self-dressing by giving them plenty of chances to try parts of the dressing process by themself, and by offering easy-to-put-on clothes, for them to try with, like loose, stretchy pieces of clothing that can be pulled on without using buttons or zippers. If your little one still isn’t doing much to take part in dressing, you can encourage them by getting them started – pulling a sock half-off, for example, and then pausing to see if they'll do the rest. If your little one is already making significant strides in self-dressing, by this age, they may be taking off more complicated pieces of clothing.
- 2.5 to 3: In the next 6 months, most toddlers are helping and taking part in both the dressing and undressing process, though they generally still have parents or caregivers helping them. Most toddlers are much further along in the process of learning to undress, though they may be putting some simple pieces of clothing on by themselves by age three. On the other hand, if Baby is one of those tots who likes to be naked most of all, they may only just now be starting to take part in putting clothes on.
- 3 to 4: Sometime between the ages of three and four, most toddlers reach the point where they can dress entirely, except for needing help with some zips and buttons. The fine motor skills needed to use zippers and buttons easily may not finish forming until some time in the fourth to fifth year.
Tots who take their time
There’s a difference between toddlers who may be having trouble getting dressed and toddlers who are having trouble learning how. Toddlers who haven’t made many attempts to dress on their own may not always enjoy being encouraged to try, and may take a while to develop the skills they need. On the other hand, toddlers who seem to be struggling with basic dressing tasks, due to clumsiness or trouble with grip-strength, may benefit from being evaluated by a pediatrician for motor delays. This is especially true for toddlers whose parents have noticed them having trouble with motor skills at other times.
- “Building self-help skills: dressing/undressing.” Australian Center for Advanced Studies. Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved August 29 2017. http://www.acas.edu.au/cypertots_toolbox/toolbox12_11/shared/resources/html/res_selfhelp_dress.htm.
- “Developmental Milestones: Dressing Skills.” CHOC Children’s Hospital. CHOC Children’s. Retrieved August 29 2017. https://www.choc.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Rehab-Developmental-dressing-skills.pdf.
- “Milestone Moments.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved August 29 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/pdf/parents_pdfs/milestonemomentseng508.pdf.
- “Milestones: Children 0-4 years.” Women and Children’s Health Network. Government of South Australia, June 2 2017. Retrieved August 29 2017. http://www.cyh.com/HealthTopics/HealthTopicDetails.aspx?p=114&np=122&id=1906.
- “Social and Emotional Development.” PBS. PBS. Retrieved August 29 2017. https://www.pbs.org/wholechild/abc/social.html.