Preschooler Parenting Tips for 3, 4, and 5-Year-Olds

The best advice for raising happy, healthy preschoolers

Young boy eating dinner in kitchen
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Raising a preschooler can be a lot of fun. Their budding social, emotional, and physical skills make them eager learners. Not quite big kids yet, they have a unique set of needs at this age. Understanding your child’s developmental stage will help ensure your parenting strategies are on par for preschoolers.

Daily Life

Your preschooler is becoming more independent and you can expect them to dress themselves, button clothes, and brush their own teeth with help.

With their speech improving and vocabulary expanding, they'll most likely begin to speak in short sentences. Your child may now begin to ask a lot of "why" questions, tell stories, remember nursery rhymes, appreciate special events, and understand daily routines.

At this stage, your preschooler will begin to play cooperatively with other children in small groups, share toys, and develop friendships. Playtime may include structured games and fantasy activities.

Enrolling your child in preschool is a great opportunity to prepare them for the rigors of school and sharpen social and cognitive skills.

Diet & Nutrition

Your child's nutrition is important to their overall health. Proper nutrition should include eating three meals a day and two nutritious snacks. Try your best to serve fruit, vegetables, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products, but limit high sugar and high-fat foods.

The amount of calories your preschooler will need depends on how active they are. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends between 1,200 and 2,000 calories per day depending on activity level. The best nutrition advice to keep your child healthy at this stage is to encourage them to eat a variety of foods. Choose a diet:

  • With plenty of grain products, vegetables, and fruits
  • Low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol
  • Moderate in sugars and salt
  • With enough calcium and iron to meet their growing body's requirements

You can also help promote good nutrition by setting a good example. Healthy eating habits and regular exercise should be a regular part of your family's life. It is much easier if everyone in the house follows these guidelines than if your child has to do it alone. Avoid keeping high-calorie desserts or snacks, such as chips, regular soft drinks, sugarcoated cereals, candy or regular ice cream in the house. Also be careful with foods that your child can choke on, such as raw carrots, peanuts, whole grapes, tough meats, popcorn, chewing gum, or hard candy.

An important way children learn to be independent is established with feeding. Even though your child may not be eating as well-rounded a diet as you would like, as long as your child is growing normally and has a normal energy level, there is probably little to worry about.

To prevent feeding problems, teach your child to feed themselves as early as possible, provide them with healthy choices, and allow for experimentation. Mealtimes should be enjoyable and pleasant and not a source of struggle.

Common nutrition mistakes at this age include allowing your child to drink too much milk or juice so they aren't hungry for solids, forcing your child to eat when they aren't hungry, or forcing them to eat foods they don't want.

Remember, most children do not eat a balanced diet each and every day, but over the course of a week or so, their diet will usually be a good balance. You can consider giving your child a daily vitamin if you think they are not eating well, although most children don't need them.

Avoid punishing your child for not eating well, limit mealtime conversation to positive and pleasant topics, and avoid commenting on your child's poor eating habits while at the table. Don’t use food as a reward or bribe.

Physical Activity

It’s important to keep your preschooler active. Physical activity will build their muscles and help them stay healthy. The good news is they will love to run, jump, climb, and play. Their blossoming motor skills allow them to hop, skip, dance, ride a bicycle, and play sports.

The Society of Health and Physical Educators (a professional society for teachers) recommends preschoolers receive the following amount of physical activity each day:

  • 60 minutes of structured play—You can break this up into a variety of activities throughout the day, like playing catch, riding a bike, swimming, or playing soccer. Structured play should include adult-led activities.
  • 60 minutes of free play—Give them time to play on the playground, run around in the yard, or engage in pretend play. These all count as free play physical activities.
  • Limited sedentary time—Don’t let your child sit still (reading books, watching screens, coloring) for more than 60 minutes unless they are sleeping.

Around the House

You can expect your preschooler to dress themselves, brush their teeth with some guidance, and be able to use the toilet on their own.

Your child might still revert to baby talk sometimes, especially when feeling stressed or anxious. But overall, you should be able to communicate with each other quite well.

This is a time of growing independence and children at this age want to be considered more responsible. To help foster a sense of responsibility now may be a good time to start giving your child an allowance, if you choose. It can help teach your child the value of money and the importance of saving.

In terms of chores around the house, preschoolers can help wipe the table, unload the dishwasher, and clean their rooms to get them used to pitching in around the house.

Positive reinforcement is important for completed chores, and failure to complete chores can be punished by loss of a privilege (TV, video games, etc.). Allowing your child to have a choice of which chore to do can sometimes help with compliance.

Preschooler Health

It’s important to take specific precautions to help your preschooler stay safe and healthy. This is also the prime time to begin teaching your child about the importance of taking care of their body and managing safety risks.

While you don’t want to scare your child by talking too much about dangers, like fires or kidnapping, plan to educate them about what to do if the smoke alarm goes off or what to do if you get separated in a store.

Visiting the Doctor

By the preschool years, your pediatrician will most likely recommend annual check-ups as long as your child is healthy. Some of the most common health issues preschoolers experience are:

  • Constipation: It is usually defined as the passage of hard and painful stools or going four or more days without a bowel movement. Constipation is most commonly caused by a diet that is low in fiber but can also be caused by drinking too much milk (more than 16 to 24 oz. per day), not drinking enough water or waiting too long to go to the bathroom. Initial treatment recommends increasing the amount of fluids your child drinks and increasing the amount of fiber and bran in the diet. It may also be helpful to decrease the amount of constipating foods they eat, including cow's milk, yogurt, cheese, cooked carrots, and bananas. Stool softeners may be necessary if these steps don't work.
  • Upper Respiratory Infections: Symptoms involving a clear or green runny nose and cough and are usually caused by cold viruses. The best treatment is to use saltwater nasal drops and a bulb suctioner to keep their nose clear. Call your pediatrician if your child has a high fever, difficulty breathing, or is not improving in 7-10 days.
  • Vomiting: If your child starts vomiting, it's best to give them a break from eating and drinking for an hour or so and then start to give small amounts of Pedialyte (1 teaspoon) every 5-10 minutes. Once your child is able to tolerate drinking these small amounts you can increase the Pedialyte to about a tablespoon every 5-10 minutes and then larger amounts as tolerated and then change back to the regular formula. Avoid giving just Pedialyte for more than 12 hours. Call your pediatrician if the vomit has blood in it, if it is dark green, or if your child is showing signs of dehydration (which includes not urinating in 6-8 hours, having a dry mouth and weight loss).
  • DiarrheaCall your pediatrician if the diarrhea has blood or pus in it, if it is not getting better in 1-2 weeks, or if you see signs of dehydration (which includes not urinating in 6-8 hours, having a dry mouth and weight loss). You should continue with their regular diet, but may give 1-2 ounces of Pedialyte each time they have large diarrhea stool to prevent dehydration.

    Annual visits to the pediatrician can help ensure your child is on track. For 3, 4, and 5-year-old checkups, you can expect:

    • An examination of your preschooler's growth and development
    • A review of feeding and sleep schedules
    • Measurement of his height, weight and blood pressure
    • Counseling for injury prevention, dental health, and a proper diet

    The 3-year-old checkup will also include:

    • A discussion of toilet training progress
    • A review of your child's immunizations to make sure they are up to date. If they are, the next immunizations will be his 4-year boosters.
    • vision screening test

    The 4-year-old checkup will also include:

    • A continued discussion of toilet training progress
    • Immunizations: DTaP, IPV, Varivax (if your child has not had chickenpox), and MMR boosters
    • Screening tests: vision test and hearing test

    The 5-year-old checkup will also include:

    • Immunizations: DTaP, IPV, Varivax booster (if your child hasn't had chickenpox) and MMR boosters (if not already given at the 4-year-old checkup)
    • Screening tests: vision test and hearing test.

    Clean your child’s teeth with a soft toothbrush with just a pea-sized amount of a fluoride toothpaste (to prevent fluorosis) until they learn to spit out the toothpaste. The first visit to the dentist is usually by age 3 at the latest, although most experts recommend you go soon after your infant gets their first tooth or by 12 months old. You might also need to start helping your child with flossing if their teeth are touching and you can't clean all around them by just brushing.

    Sleep

    Most preschoolers still need a nap during the day. They tend to be very active so giving them a rest period (even if they don’t fall asleep) is still a good idea. Usually, about an hour nap is sufficient. But there may be times your child will need a longer nap.

    It’s recommended that 3-year-olds get between 10 and 12 hours of sleep at night with a 1 to 3 hour nap.

    Most 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds need 10 to 13 hours of sleep with a nap that may last up to 2.5 hours. Some children stop napping around age 4.

    Remember, bedtime problems can be common during the preschool years, so you're not alone. Many children are afraid they will miss out on something if they go to bed. Other children experience nightmares or night terrors. And some just have trouble falling asleep. They may be afraid of the dark, worry about monsters under the bed, or simply be upset about being separated from you.

    Safety

    Accidents are the leading cause of death for children at this age. Most of these deaths could easily be prevented, so it's very important to keep your child's safety in mind at all times. Here are some tips to keep your preschooler safe:

    • Use car seats correctly. Preschoolers should sit in a forward-facing car seat with harness straps as long as possible and until they reach the weight and height limits of their car seat before moving to a booster seat. Many convertible car seats and combination car seats have forward-facing weight limits of 65 to 80 pounds when used with harness straps.
    • Use safe equipment. Make sure used or hand-me-down equipment, such as car seats, strollers, and cribs, etc, haven't been recalled for safety reasons. Call the manufacturer or the Consumer Product Safety Commission for an up to date list of recalled products.
    • Prevent choking. Never leave small objects within your child's reach to prevent choking, including coins, safety pins, tacks, toys with small parts, and rubber or latex balloons. Take the time to look for these small items, in the areas where your children are playing.
    • Practice water safety. Teach your child to swim, but do not let them play around any water (lake, pool, ocean, etc.) without adult supervision (even if they are a good swimmer). They should always wear a life preserver or safety vest when on a boat, and if you have a pool, make it childproof by enclosing it in a fence with a self-closing, self-latching door.

      It's especially important to childproof your house. Here are some specific recommendations to protect preschoolers:

      • Set the temperature of your hot water heater to 120 degrees F.
      • Use gates on stairs, covers on electrical outlets, and latches on cabinets.
      • Keep household cleaners, chemicals, and medicines completely out of reach and always store them in their original container.
      • Do not carry hot liquids or food near your child and do not allow your child near stoves, heaters or other hot appliances (especially curling irons). When cooking, use the back burners and turn pot handles inward.
      • To prevent drowning, empty all water from bathtubs and pails, keep the door to the bathroom closed, and never leave your child alone near any container of water
      • Keep a list of emergency numbers near the phone, like the Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222).
      • Lock rooms that are not childproof

      When talking about safety with your child, teach them these important skills:

      • Pedestrian (crossing streets, etc.) and playground safety (including not playing on trampolines)
      • Stranger awareness: Review scenarios that predators may use, including offering candy or toys to get in the car, asking to help look for a lost pet, or being told they are picking your child up because you are sick.
      • Parking lot safety, such as holding your hand and looking out for cars

      Technology

      Screen time doesn’t have to be bad for kids. You can find educational apps, games that promote physical activity, and websites that teach skills. However, much of the content on the internet isn’t age appropriate.

      It’s important to pay close attention to the media your child is consuming. Even kid-friendly advertisements can be unhealthy. For example, junk food ads often target young kids.

      You should also consider the downsides of too much screen time. It’s not healthy for preschoolers to engage in too much sedentary activity. In 2016, the guidelines released by the AAP recommended that preschoolers only receive about 1 hour per day of screen time. They also recommend that children in this age group only be exposed to high-quality programs.

      Your Preschooler's World

      Many preschoolers love going to preschool. It gives them an opportunity to feel like a “big kid” and provides opportunities to practice their social skills. They are likely eager to show off the new skills they’ve learned. From mastering the alphabet to writing their numbers, they’re usually very proud of their new accomplishments.

      Most preschoolers enjoy a consistent routine. Any major changes, such as the birth of a new baby or a change in daycare, can be quite stressful for them. Their behaviors may temporarily regress as they adjust to the changes.

      Preschoolers experience empathy for others. They may console other kids at daycare or try to help another child who has fallen down. They enjoy being around other children and may have a lot of fun playing with their friends.

      Their poor impulse control and difficulty managing their emotions, however, can make sharing and taking turns difficult. They may lash out and become aggressive at times when they’re not getting their way.

      Their imaginations take them to new places. They often love to pretend they are different people or that they live in magical lands.

      A Word From Verywell

      You’re likely to see a lot of physical, emotional, and social growth during the preschool years. Give your child plenty of security and consistency, and they're likely to flourish.

      Many parents worry about whether their child is going to be ready for kindergarten. If you have concerns about your child’s development or kindergarten readiness, talk to their preschool teacher or her pediatrician.

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