Setting up your toddler’s world for independence

Is there anything cooler than doing something, “all by yourself”? Not if you’re a toddler, there isn’t. Baby is at the age where putting on their own socks and shoes is a little bit like climbing a mountain – made possible by a combination of a lot of skills and training that they're been working towards their whole life, and when they're done it successfully, they want a cookie.

The best way to help keep that proud smile on Baby’s face that they get when they're done something all on their own is to make sure they have plenty of chances not just to try new things, but to use the skills they already have regularly.

Preparing your home for Baby

Baby may know how to do (or want to try to do!) all kinds of things, but that doesn’t mean things won’t get messy for a while as they master their new skills. The sooner they get started, the sooner they can get better, though, and there are a few ways you can alter the set-up of your home to make it an easier launch-pad for Baby’s growing set of skills.

For starters, it can be helpful to sit down with your partner, or any other caregivers, and think about any jobs Baby could start to do with a little bit less help from you, either now or soon. This might include anything from washing their own hands before meals to having them bring lightweight, plastic plates and napkins to the dinner table for you. When you’re coming up with jobs Baby might be able to start to do for themself, there’s no need to get them started right away – instead, you can look ahead a little bit, and start to get your home ready for when they can.

  • Get Baby on your level: Solid, wide-stepped step-stools can be a great way to give Baby the chance to reach what they need, instead of waiting for a boost from you.
  • Set out supplies: If there are certain materials Baby could use on their own, like a box of cereal and a plastic or metal bowl so that they can grab a snack on their own, setting up one or two low cabinets filled with things you don’t mind Baby being able to get their hands on can give them the chance to start to make a few more choices about their day.
  • Dress for success: As Baby starts to get better at helping you get them dressed and undressed, try to buy clothes that will be easy for them to learn to put on, instead of more complicated, button- and zipper-involving things that will keep them dependent on your help for longer. You might still be pulling that loose, pullover sweater over their head now, but tomorrow, they could be doing it all by themself! Many pairs of pants made for children around this age have elastic waistbands for easy pulling-up, and velcro can make fastening a jacket closed easier for little fingers. If you do go for something with buttons, clothing with a small number of big buttons that get threaded through big holes are great for practicing.
  • Get time on your side: Build extra time into your schedule for your toddler to do things for themself – it often will take more time, and doing things for a toddler that they could do for themself often happens when families are in a hurry. Setting aside that extra time can keep it from becoming an issue too often
  • Make independence a state of mind: Leaving Baby some time for free-play on their own, even if that’s not their favorite thing, can help build their sense of independence in the long term – the ability to amuse themself will only grow more and more important as they grow.
  • Limit the times you need to say “no”: Hearing “no” too often can be discouraging to Baby’s independent spirit. Making sure their home is as safe as possible cuts down on the number of times you need to tell them, “It’s time to stop,” on a given day. As Baby gets older, it’s easy for toddler-proofing to start to slip, but the truth is that the bigger they get, the higher they can climb.

Independence isn’t all-or-nothing – you and Baby can ease your way into their growing independence. You don’t need to go from dressing them every day to waiting for them to come out of their room in the morning fully dressed – they can start by pulling their shirt the second half of the way on. Every step Baby takes at this point is a beginning, and they'll be a whole lot further before you know it.

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