How to Encourage Your Toddler to Dress Themselves

Toddler getting dressed

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There is not much cuter than a proud toddler who has gotten their own clothes on...almost perfectly. You excitedly tell them what a great job they did, while holding back your giggles because the shirt is backward, and the shoes have been meticulously velcroed onto the wrong feet.

Learning to get dressed all by themselves is integral to your toddler's development. This gradual process begins when they are babies and they pull their little hats off their heads. Over time, toddlers learn how to put their own clothes on and eventually how to work zips and buckles.

Read on to learn how you can help your toddler get dressed independently and develop their own sense of style.

When Should a Toddler Be Able to Dress Themselves?

There is no exact age that a toddlers must be able to dress themselves. Rather, it's a mix of their interests and their skill level. "Toddlers generally start by taking their clothing off rather than dressing themselves," says Pierrette Mimi Poinsette, MD, a pediatrician and consultant with Mom Loves Best. "At about 12 to 18 months, your child may start taking their clothes off, especially socks and shoes. Starting around 3 years of age, your child may begin to dress more independently."

Your toddler will show you when they are ready to begin the gradual process of learning to dress themselves. When they begin to try, let them help as much as they can. "If a young child is continuing in their learning of removing their shoes, adults can observe and see which steps the child can do on their own and which they may need guidance," says Pamela Green, a Montessori consultant and owner of Ananda Montessori, an infant playgroup.

Benefits of a Toddler Who Can Dress Themselves

Having a toddler who can get dressed on their own has many benefits. There is one less thing for you to help them with. Instead, you can do something else, such as help a younger sibling, or even just sit down for a minute.

Getting dressed has developmental benefits for your toddler as well. Choosing clothes and putting them on lets them practice planning and sequencing. Plus, the act of getting on pants, jackets, and socks works on their fine motor skills.

Making their own choices, such as which shirt to wear, also allows toddlers to begin to express themselves. And when your child finally masters the art of getting their own clothes on, they will feel capable and independent.

How Can I Help My Toddler Get Dressed?

Learning to get dressed is a gradual process that requires plenty of adult guidance. You will want to help your child develop the skills needed to get dressed, such as pulling their pants up or buttoning a coat. You can also help your little one understand how to put together a coordinating outfit.

Skills for Self-Dressing

Teaching your child how to get their clothes on begins very early in life, when you are the one taking onesies on and off your newborn. You can talk to your infant about what you are doing, such as putting an arm into a sleeve.

As your child grows, help them practice the skills needed for self-dressing. You can start by putting their pant legs over their ankles and having them pull the pants up, or putting a shirt over their head and having them push their arms into the sleeves. Eventually, they can learn skills that require more precision, such as pulling on socks or buttoning a coat.

"In this process, we allow freedom for a child to do as much as they can, with as little help as is necessary," says Green.

Toys with fasteners, such as buckles, buttons, snaps, or ties are a great way for your little one to practice the skills needed for self-dressing.

Toddler Style Tips

Some parents are okay with letting their toddler dress in anything they want, while others would like to help their kid learn to coordinate. Offering limited choices helps make sure that your child is dressing in a somewhat-stylish way while building their decision-making skills and boosting their autonomy. They will also slowly start to observe how colors and patterns complement one another.

Limited choices help ensure that your toddler does not get overwhelmed. "Some autonomy is beneficial, but stick to two or three options rather than choosing from everything in a drawer," says Dr. Poinsette.

Here's how you could use limited choices: Offer two dresses, two pairs of pants, and two sweaters for your toddler to choose from. You can hang all these options on low hooks that your little one can choose from in the morning. Other kids will do better with a more step-by-step approach, where the parent offers two of each item, one at a time, before presenting the next set to choose from.

Toddler outfits can include basic pieces, such as pants, shirts, dresses, and sweaters. But there are lots of adorable accessories to have fun with too, like headbands, hair bows, hats, mittens, and of course, princess crowns.

Milestones for a Child to Dress Themselves

Every child learns at their own pace, and there is no exact age by which your toddler must be able to dress themselves. However, kids generally follow a basic pattern of development.

Young toddlers will usually start to participate in the dressing process. "Toddlers may start removing their clothes around 1 to to 1 and a half," says Dr. Poinsette. "They may also put out their arms when you get ready to put on a top of a dress."

By age 2, many children will be able to get a shirt or pants on with some parental guidance. Toward age 3, they will be able to do it by themselves and they may be able to zip or button their coat or put on velcro shoes.

"Practicing with large buttons or toys with zippers on them will help kids master these skills," says Dr. Poinsette.

Self-Dressing Milestones
 Age Skills
 1 to 1 and a half years - May remove own clothes such as a hat or socks
- May reach arms out to help as an adult dresses them
 2 years  - May unbutton own clothes
- May take own pants off, may be able to pull pants back up
- May put on shirts with some adult guidance
3 years - May put shirts and pants on independently
- May put velcro shoes on independently
- May zip and unzip a jacket

What if My Toddler Is Not Yet Able to Dress Themselves?

Not all kids will learn to dress themselves at the same time. Some 2-year-olds may be able to put their shoes on and zip up their jacket, while others may be 4 or 5 before they have fully mastered self-dressing.

"Most toddlers are too young to fully dress themselves, but they are capable of helping through the process," says Dr. Poinsette. It's completely fine for your toddler to go at their own pace.

One thing to keep in mind is setting your child up for success. Take a look at their wardrobe and make sure you have pieces in there that are easy for your toddler to practice with.

"As adults, we can also assist in the process of dressing by having clothing for children that they can choose for themselves," says Green. [These pieces] are easy to pull on and to remove, and don't have snaps, buttons, belts, or [ties on] shoes. Think about whether the clothing is an obstacle for dressing, and make changes."

Positioning a mirror at your child's eye level can also help. Toddlers can use the mirror to make sure their clothes are on correctly and self-correct if they see an error, such as a shirt on backward. Fixing their own mistakes can ease frustration.

"It is one thing to be told that our clothes are on wrong, and another to have the freedom to discover this for ourselves," notes Green.

If you have any concerns about your toddler's development, be sure to reach out to their pediatrician or healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell

Toddlers are becoming more independent all the time. When they take their hat off over and over or insist on spending way too long trying to get their shoes on, this is a good sign. Try to follow your toddler's lead and allow them to explore the process of getting dressed as much as is reasonable. It's all part of their process of developing into little people who can make decisions and take part in their own self-care.

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  1. Pregnancy Birth Baby. Toddler Development: Getting Dressed.

By Elisa Cinelli
Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based content to help parents make the best decisions for their families. She has written for well-known sites including POPSUGAR and Scary Mommy, among others.