Toddler Self-Help Skills

Toddlers Enjoy Learning Self-Help Skills


Toddlers…children between the ages of 18 and 36 months…are developing a sense of themselves as separate from their parents. They are insisting on doing things for themselves…so let them learn the skills necessary to do some things for themselves.

This is the social-emotional development phase that Erik Erikson called autonomy versus shame and doubt. The goal or job of this developmental stage is by about age 3, children are well on their way to autonomy, confident and pleased with their newly developed abilities.

Some of the skills that a parent may help their child learn are learning to feed oneself, dressing and washing. Make sure you and your child’s caregiver coordinate on methods and timing of practicing these skills.

Always use positive guidance. Instead of using negative words like, “Don’t spill it,” say, “Use both hands to hold the cup.” Whatever you do, don’t shame your child. Treat accidents matter-of-factly and never punish by withholding food.


  • Hand washing: Make it a habit for your child to always wash hands before eating and after diapering or toileting. There are special soaps with pictures of funny characters on the package which may make it more fun to use. Provide a towel within his reach and a step-stool to make reaching the sink easier.
  • Testing water: Show the child how to test the water with one finger before putting both hands in the running water.
  • Bathing: Talk with your child about why bathing is necessary. You can demonstrate how to wash the body by washing a doll. At first, you do most of the washing. The toddler may begin by washing his face and arms. Gradually, the child will take over. Finish the bath with shampooing with a shampoo that does not burn the eyes. Talk about genitals as naturally as you would any other body part. Make bathing fun by providing tub toys. NEVER LEAVE YOUR CHILD ALONE IN THE BATHTUB. PROVIDE SUPERVISION UNTIL YOUR CHILD IS ABOUT 6 YEARS OLD.
  • Tooth Brushing: Introduce tooth brushing, but don’t expect your child to do it independently until about age 4. Make sure you use a soft-bristled, child-sized tooth brush and help the child to squeeze a small amount of toothpaste on the tooth brush. Show how to spit out the toothpaste and rinse the mouth with water. Each child develops these skills on their own time schedule. Remember, don’t shame your child if he needs help a little longer than you think he should.
  • Nose blowing: When your child has a runny nose, it is a good time to practice the skill of blowing your nose. At first, you might want to hold up a mirror so the child can see how the nose looks with drainage coming out. Offer a tissue and let the child wipe, while looking in the mirror. Encourage the child to blow gently…not to hard. Make sure the child tosses the tissue in the trash. Always keep tissue within easy reach.
  • Weaning from the bottle: When your child is around 8 to 9 months and eating solid foods, introduce a ‘sippy’ cup at mealtimes. This cup should have a lid with a drinking slit or spout to prevent spillage. Some have a straw and handles. Use the ‘sippy’ cup only with snacks and meals; don’t let your child walk around all day with one. When your child is about 18 months old, consider weaning him from the bottle. Start with the child’s least favorite feeding time, such as afternoon snack and end with the child’s most favorite feeding time, which is usually before bedtime. Substitute a drink from a cup at the targeted time. Do this for at least a week before targeting the next feeding time, which gives your child time to adjust.
  • Eating with a spoon: Offer at least one finger food while your child is learning to eat with a spoon. You can help feed the child with another spoon or fork. Encourage your child to chew foods slowly and eat with the mouth closed. By about age 2 ½ , the child can begin spearing food with a fork. Remember your toddler is growing more slowly than an infant and probably will have a smaller appetite. Never force children to ‘eat one more bite’ or clear their plates. If you offer dessert, make it a nutritious part of the meal. Don’t offer it as a reward for eating everything or being well behaved. You may always encourage your child to help with clean up.
  • Dressing: Pulling off clothes is typically easier than putting them on. By about 18 months, many children can pull off caps, socks and shoes. About age 2, they can begin learning to put on clothing…slipping on shoes in the morning and a jacket before going outdoors. For easier independent dressing choose t-shirts, pants with elastic waists and shoes with Velcro fasteners. Children don’t usually learn to tie shoe laces until age 5 or 6 years old.

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