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7 Secrets of success in getting a toddler dressed

Why your child needs to learn how to get dressed

Learning to get dressed builds your child’s confidence and independence and gives your child a sense of achievement. And once your child can dress himself, helping him get dressed is one less thing for you to do.

Also, getting dressed helps your child develop many other skills, including:

  • fine motor skills as she learns to fasten buttons and zips
  • gross motor skills as she stands on one leg to pull on a pair of pants
  • cognitive skills as she remembers which bits of clothing go on first, and builds the patience and attention to finish the task
  • language as she names types of clothes, colours and sizes
  • awareness of time and space as she learns to dress for certain occasions and weather conditions.


When to get help

If you are worried about any aspect of your toddler’s growth or development, you should speak to your doctor or child health nurse.

You can also call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 to speak to a maternal child health nurse.

Getting dressed: breaking down the steps

Getting dressed can have a lot of steps. It helps to break it down into smaller steps – for example, putting on underwear, then t-shirt, shorts, socks and shoes.

You can also break down each of the steps in getting dressed, depending on your child’s skill and age. For example, you could break down the steps for putting on shorts like this:

  • Face shorts the right way.
  • Hold onto the front of the waistband.
  • Push one leg at a time through the leg holes while also holding pants.
  • Pull the shorts up.

Talking your child through each step helps her know what to do. In the early stages, simple words or phrases are OK – for example, ‘Shirt on’. You can say more as your child’s language develops – for example, ‘Push your arm through the sleeve’.

When your child can almost dress himself (usually from three years and up), you can check whether he understands the steps by asking, ‘What’s the first thing you need to put on?’ If he can’t remember, you can help him get started by reminding him.

What to do first when your toddler tantrums

The first steps to dealing when your toddler tantrums getting dressed are the same as dealing with any temper tantrum: calm yourself and empathize.  Having someone kicking and screaming and yelling is stressful.  It doesn’t matter that it’s coming from a two year old – still stressful.  Take some deep breaths so you don’t get yourself worked up into an adult tantrum (aka, anger).

Then empathize with your little one.  They are frustrated or tired or hungry and they can’t explain that to you so they have a tantrum.  They really have so little control over their worlds, and they are starting to not like that.

Getting reading to leave the house with a toddler

Age: 18 months – 4 years Pretend your toddler’s feet are snakes, and their shoes and socks are the snakes’ caves. Try hissing together and weaving your hands and their feet from side to side as you wiggle those feet into those socks. The snakes are home safe now. Phew! Your child’s development: This is a fun way to sneak in some playtime together before things get busy. Playing pretend games helps their imagination comes to life, boosting their creativity and thinking skills.

Age: 18 months – 4 years Why not tell your child that you are going to the moon together in 10…9…8…7… and they need to get their spacesuit (coat) on. When you reach blast off, pick them up and off to the moon you go. Your child’s development: Sparking their imagination can make clothes go on smoother. Making everyday things into games can make things feel like an adventure. It makes your days together more fun, and it’s good for them too.

What Self-Dressing Milestones Parents Should Expect

Once your child does start to wear clothes on her own, don't be surprised or disappointed if she wears her shirt backward and her rainbow tights inside out. Instead, recognize her effort as a job well done. If you're headed out for the day, you may want to gently explain that her shirt needs to be adjusted, but if she protests, let it be and continue to focus on the positive. Emotionally, your newly bedecked babe will be going through a range of feelings, Dr. Ruskin says. "Emotions can shift within seconds. She can go from joy at putting on her favorite pink dress to frustration at not being able to get a piece of clothing on or at feeling that a shirt seems too tight," Dr. Ruskin adds. So remember to offer praise and encouragement.

During the initial stages of learning to get dressed, everyone in the family needs to be doubly patient and support a child's newfound progression towards childhood, Dr. Polin says. Chances are, her room will be covered in a multitude of outfits, as she'll want to change frequently to show off her personality and her pride in acquiring new skills. But even you may be hustling to get out the door in the morning, give her the space and time to get dressed.

What to do if you have no idea why your toddler tantrums getting dressed

It’s not always clear why your toddler is having a morning tantrum getting dressed.  If you have no clue why your sweet toddler flipped their lid at the suggestion of getting dressed, just take a guess and fall back on empathy.  “I think you’re…still sleepy/having a hard time with your new baby brother/miss me because I’ve been working a lot lately…”  Whatever the reason you might think, say it out loud to your toddler.  They are understanding and listening more than we think.  Even if they can’t say back to us “yes mama, I’m feeling sad because you spend so much time nursing new baby brother” (I mean most of us as adults are not that articulate all of the time), they are taking in what we are saying and it’s worth saying it out loud.

A lot of managing temper tantrums is not trying to control them in our toddlers.  It’s working with our toddlers, anticipating when they might have a tantrum, having empathy, and keeping ourselves calm.  Not an easy practice, but an important one!

If you’re interested in reading more about positive parenting, this book is a great book to get you started!

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When will my toddler show interest in dressing themselves?

There’s no golden age when children become interested in learning how to dress. Some toddlers are keen to dress themselves and change multiple times a day. Others seem not to care at all.

Most toddlers start with taking clothes and shoes off first, before they learn how to put them back on. Easy-to-remove hats, shoes, socks and trousers are often the first to go. As they get older, children build skills in more complex aspects of dressing, including what clothes to wear for the weather.

Dressing for toddlers is a process, wherein it’s not just the end result that is important, but also the journey. Getting dressed relies on a range of physical skills including fine and gross motor skills, hand-eye coordination, decision making and even organisation.

Dressing also helps build language skills, since toddlers learn how to recognise and name different items of clothing, their colours and where they go on the body. When your child first starts learning how to dress, expect them to put tops over their legs and arms through their pant legs.

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I Can Do It Myself

Teaching a sense of independence is a goal that parents need to include in their parenting skills. Teaching young children to dress themselves is a skill that teaches independence. Family reading time with Rebecca Van Slyke's Where Do Pants Go? is a fun tool to begin learning these skills.

Clothes are sometimes an issue for young children with zippers, buttons, and shoelaces. It is a good idea to have items of clothing that children can pull on with no necessary closures. Shoes that can be slipped on or that have velcro closures are valuable items when young children are learning to dress themselves.

Parents can also give children a choice of colors to choose from each day and offer children the option of choosing a complete outfit. Playing a game of colors with clothing also motivates young children to dress themselves.

Learning to dress themselves leads to learning other skills that foster independence. Parents should show confidence in their children's choices in order to keep the independence going.

I can do it myself!

Courtesy of Sterling Children's Books

Reader Interactions


  1. […] By kindergarten children will be expected to be able to go to the bathroom on their own. This means being able to re-dress themselves, and wash up as well. If your preschooler still has a tendency to come wandering out of the restroom, pants around ankles, asking for help…then check out these great tips for teaching your child to dress themselves. […]