How to Support Your Toddler’s Growing Independence
So your toddler wants to do everything themselves now? Learn how to encourage and support your little one as they explore the world
7 min read
Toddlers are hilarious micro human beings. There’s the running around that involves almost-yet-not-quite toppling over. Their strangely musical babblings to themselves in the pram.
Plus, their complete disregard for personal space as they launch themselves onto your neck and hang on with the grim determination worthy of an American Ninja Warrior contestant.
In between the hilarity, there’s their growing independence – the first stage of growing up that’ll (eventually – and hopefully) see them leaving home one day, ready to start their own lives.
Here’s how to handle this new stage. We’ve covered everything from what they’ll learn to do and when, through to how to help them gain more independence.
About toddler independence
Us humans have a drive to be independent. It’s a healthy, and normal, part of our development. As we grow, we learn to do more things by ourselves.
Our independence kicks in when we’re toddlers. It helps boost our self-esteem, wellbeing and sense of identity. Trying new things develops our problem-solving abilities and perseverance.
These are all things we need to become fully-functioning adults.
So, although there’s a tinge of sadness to your baby ‘growing up’ and no longer needing you to do everything for them, it’s pretty amazing to see the human they’re growing up to be.
Plus, think of all the free time you’ll have once you’re no longer needed to feed / dress / clean them. That’s a lot of reading / Netflix / coffee dates…
When will my toddler learn to do things by themselves?
Like all toddler milestones, your little one will do things at their own pace.
Generally, your toddler will start showing their independence in the months after their first birthday. They’ll know what they like, and dislike – and how to vocalise these.
By 21 months, they’ll recognise themselves in the mirror. This is probably the starting point of the “no” period when they’ll start asserting their independence.
As your little one grows up and asserts their independence, there are 4 main areas they need to get to grips with: feeding, dressing, hygiene and toileting, and helping.
When baby first starts solids, you’ll probably be feeding them or letting them pick food up with their fingers.
When they’re between 12-15 months, they can try to use a spoon. Because the bones in their wrists aren’t strong enough to give them full control, expect things to get messy. Now’s the time to buy a large wipe-clean mat for under the highchair.
At this age, your toddler may be able to drink from an adult cup, with a bit of help from you.
By 18 months, they’ll probably have this spoon-eating thing down pat. They may still prefer to use their fingers though.
By 2.5 years, they might be using a fork as well as a spoon.
Taking clothes off is much easier than putting them on. Expect your toddler to enjoy the freedom of being naked!
When they’re between 13-15 months, they should be able to take off easily removed clothes, like loose socks. By 21 months, they should be able to handle trickier items, like a vest. By 2 years, they might be able to put on a hat and slip-on shoes.
Your little one probably won’t be able to fully dress themselves, from undies and socks through to bottoms and tops, until they’re 4 years old.
Hygiene and toileting
Once baby teeth appear, you need to be gently brushing them. This gets little one used to the idea of tooth brushing. They may want to start brushing their own teeth from around 16 months. You can let them, but you may need to help them out.
They won’t be able to do it properly on their own until they’re about 3 or 4 years old. You’ll still need to supervise them at this age.
Toilet training doesn’t really happen until your toddler is between 2-3 years old. You’re looking for readiness signs, like them knowing when they need to go toilet before it happens and not weeing more than once an hour (learn more about toilet training).
Teach your toddler to wash and dry their hands while you’re toilet training. They might be able to wash their hands by the time they’re 3 years old but drying can be trickier.
Helping with daily chores
Get your little one involved with clean-up and simple household chores early on. Toddlers can place utensils on the table. Or clear their own plates when they’re old enough to carry them without dropping them. Or clean up their own toys, with some supervision and help from others.
Getting your child involved in regular chores before they turn 4 can help them be more independent in early adulthood.
How can I help my toddler become more independent?
As your toddler takes on more things, it’s time to take a little step back mama. Although this can be hard, it’s also amazing to watch your toddler become their own little person.
To help them succeed, it’s about watching, listening and encouraging.
- Whenever your child tries a new skill, offer plenty of praise and encouragement, whether they’re successful or not.
- Stay calm and cheerful. This lets them know it’s ok to take a few tries to master something.
- Try not to step in too quickly. Your child needs time to learn new skills at their own pace. Unless what they’re doing is unsafe, let them be.
- Relax your standards. If they’re getting dressed by themselves, and choose togs, PJs and Crocs, that’s their choice. Know the more they’re practising, the better they’re becoming.
- Watch them closely to keep them safe.
- Set limits and explain why. Your toddler might want to help you prepare dinner, including chopping the veg. Tell them it’s not safe to do this by themselves because the knife is sharp, and they may get hurt. It’ll be frustrating, but they’ll learn to understand and respect boundaries.
How to handle a toddler’s growing independence
As your toddler gains more confidence and wants to do ever-increasing things for themselves, it’s natural for them to get frustrated when they can’t (or shouldn’t) do things.
The most likely way for your toddler to express that frustration? A temper tantrum. Here are some tips for managing any meltdowns.
- Ask questions that can’t be answered by the word ‘no’. So, if you ask them to tidy up their room and get a loud NO in response, change tack. Try ‘How about we do it together then you can play outside?’
- Praise the behaviour you want. Avoid sentences that start with ‘don’t’, ‘stop’ or ‘no’. Instead, pay attention to and praise the behaviour you want. Think ‘I like it when you hold my hand when we cross the road’.
- Give them simple choices. This gives them a feeling of control and like their voice is heard. Try offering a choice of 2 t-shirts, not their entire wardrobe.
- Get organised. Build more time in your schedule to relieve the stress. Allow extra time to put on shoes, for example.
- Distract them. Sense a tantrum building? Diffuse it quick sharp by making them laugh. Blow a raspberry, pull a funny face, or sing a silly song.
When should I be concerned about my toddler’s independence?
There’s plenty for your little one to learn. It takes time to learn new skills and every toddler will learn at their own pace.
If your child hasn’t shown any interest in doing anything for themselves by the time they’re 2 years old, chat to your Plunket nurse or GP.