Preschool Parenting Tips (3-, 4-, and 5-Year-Olds)

The best advice for raising happy, healthy preschoolers

Tips for parenting preschoolers

Illustration by Emily Roberts, Verywell

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Parenting a preschooler is never dull. One moment your kid is asking, "Where do rocks come from?" and just when you come up with a coherent explanation about how ocean waves break larger rocks down into smaller ones, they shout, "Let's pretend we are unicorns!" Such is the life of a preschool parent. Preschoolers are curious, caring, and they have huge imaginations. It's a pretty special stage!

Of course, ages 3 to 5 are not without their challenges too. Preschoolers may still be learning to control their frustration and they may not want to follow the rules. Here, we share some parenting tips to help you get through this exciting and challenging stage of your child's life.

Daily Life

Three- to 5-year-olds need plenty of sleep, nutritious food, and plenty of physical activity to thrive. Some kids this age may attend preschool, while others may not be quite ready for a structured learning environment.

Diet and Nutrition

Your preschooler may ask you for cookies at every meal, but what they really need is a variety of nutritious options served over three meals and two snacks each day. Offer nutritious vegetables, fruits, meats, and low-fat dairy products and 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 (AAP) recommends between 1,200 and 2,000 calories per day depending on activity level and age. The best nutrition advice to keep your child healthy at this stage is to encourage them to eat a variety of foods. "Finger foods like carrot sticks, celery sticks, fruit slices, and raisins are healthy choices that preschoolers might enjoy," notes Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, MD, a pediatrician and consultant with Mom Loves Best.

If your preschooler refuses certain foods or doesn't seem to eat enough, don't try to convince them to eat. Encourage them to try new things while respecting their limits and teaching them to listen to their bodies' fullness cues. Meals should be a positive family experience. If you do have concerns about your child's diet, reach out to their pediatrician.

Your child may not be as likely to cooperate if you reach for a plate of fried chicken while serving them a salmon salad. It's best if everyone in the house follows the same guidelines. When healthy eating habits and regular exercise are a regular part of your family's life, your preschooler is more likely to embrace these habits as well.

Carrots, peanuts, and grapes are all nutritious options for your preschooler, but they can also be a choking hazard. Make sure to cut any hard foods into small pieces and quarter foods that can become lodged in the esophagus, such as hotdogs, grapes, or cherry tomatoes. Even a spoonful of peanut butter can cause a 3-year-old to choke. "Cut food length-wise instead of in circles to minimize choking hazards," advises Dr. Poinsett.

Preschoolers benefit more from whole fruit than from fruit juice, which is mainly sugar and lacks the fiber found in fruit. Three-year-olds should have no more than 4 ounces of 100% fruit juice per day, while 4- and 5-year-olds should stick to 6 ounces max.

Three- to 5-year-olds need to eat a variety of healthy foods. Offer vegetables, fruits, proteins, grains, and low-fat dairy products throughout the day.

Physical Activity

Your preschooler probably runs freely in open spaces and enjoys climbing playground structures. They may also like kicking a ball back and forth. Kids this age need plenty of opportunities throughout the day to use their blossoming motor skills to hop, skip, dance, ride a bicycle, and play sports.

Preschoolers need a minimum of three hours of physical activity each day. This should include one hour of moderate to vigorous activity. That might look like a game of catch or a tumbling class and two hours of free playtime in the yard or at the playground. "Dancing to music is a great form of exercise for kids at this age," notes Dr. Poinsett. "Freeze dance or musical chairs are great choices."

Don't worry about enrolling your child in soccer or dance if that doesn't work for your family, though. Most kids at this age will naturally get the more vigorous activity they need without needing a structured class or lesson, so it's not necessary to sign up for organized sports in order to meet this need.

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, though some kids may still be in diapers. Others may have transitioned to "big kid" underwear but still experience the occasional accident or bedwetting.

This is a time of growing independence and children at this age want to be considered more responsible. In terms of chores around the house, preschoolers can help wipe the table, unload the dishwasher (just make sure you pull out any sharp items, like knives, first), and clean their rooms to get them used to pitching in around the house.

"Kids at this age can get into the habit of putting away their toys and books," says Dr. Poinsett. "Older preschoolers may be able to make their bed with assistance, and young children may enjoy sweeping with a child-sized broom."

Positive reinforcement is important for completed chores, and failure to complete chores can be a sign that they are either not yet ready to do that chore or need more time to learn it. The focus should be on teaching skills, rather than punishing a child for lack of compliance. Allowing your child to have a choice of which chore to do can sometimes help with compliance.

Health & Safety

Preschoolers are old enough to learn a little about keeping themselves safe. Parents still need to oversee health and safety at this age, but it's a good time to teach children basic skills like what to do if the smoke alarm goes off or what to do if you get separated in a store.

Visiting the Doctor

After age 3, your child will see their pediatrician annually for well visits. 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; height, weight, and blood pressure measurements; and counseling for injury prevention, dental health, and a proper diet.

The 3-year-old checkup may also include a discussion of toilet training progress, a review of your child's immunizations to make sure they are up to date, and a vision screening test. The 4-year-old checkup may also include immunizations including DTaP, IPV, Varivax, and MMR boosters, as well as a vision test and a hearing test. Finally, the 5-year-old checkup may also include immunizations including DTaP, IPV, Varivax booster, and MMR boosters (if not already given at the 4-year-old checkup). Vision and hearing tests are also done at this visit.

As concerns about your child's health or development crop up during the year, note them on a designated slip of paper or on a doc in your phone. Then, you can pull it out at your child's well visit and make sure you get your questions answered. You can also call up their pediatrician for questions you'd like more immediate answers to.

Preschoolers may be excited to brush their own teeth, but parents still need to brush them as well. Clean your child’s teeth with a soft toothbrush with just a pea-sized amount of 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

Your preschooler needs 10 to 13 hours of sleep per day, which may or may not include an afternoon nap. "If your preschooler is stalling at bedtime, waking up early in the morning, or skipping naps, it may be time to drop nap altogether," notes Heather Wallace, a certified pediatric sleep consultant and the owner of BraveHeart Sleep Training and Postpartum Doula Consulting.

But, even if your little one drops their nap on the earlier side, it's still a good idea to have a daily rest period. "Daily quiet time can help prevent behavior problems, late afternoon crankiness, or sleep troubles at night," says Wallace.

Many preschoolers leave their cribs and sleep in a "big kid bed" for the first time. This is an exciting transition, but it may come with some challenges. "To ease this transition, first make sure the schedule is on par," explains Wallace. "This will help your efforts to smoothly get into a big kid bed because your child will be ready for sleep. Second, do some prep work leading up to the change, such as reading books with your preschooler about moving to a big kid bed, and involve your child in picking new sheets and blankets out."

For some preschoolers, the newfound freedom of sleeping in a bed can be too tempting. You may find your child getting out of bed to play at night or even wandering the house. It can be helpful to use a toddler clock to visually show when it’s time for sleep and when it’s time to wake up. Reward charts such as a sticker chart to track how well your child follows bedtime and wake-up expectations can be helpful as well.

Safety

It's important to keep your preschooler safe. Kids at this age need to ride in a car seat every time they are in a moving vehicle. They 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.

Choking is still a concern for preschoolers. Until age 4, do not serve them foods like hot dogs, whole nuts, whole grapes, or anything that may become lodged in the esophagus. Even after 4, supervise your child while they eat and remind them to chew well.

Preschoolers should be taught to swim, but that doesn't mean they can play around water without adult supervision. Kids at this age should never be left alone around any body of water. If you have a pool, make it childproof by enclosing it in a fence with a self-closing, self-latching door. Empty any container of water when you're done using it, such as a bucket or bathtub.

There are many dangers in the home that can hurt preschoolers, but you can prevent many of them by childproofing your house. For instance, set the temperature of your hot water heater to 120 degrees F and use gates on stairs cover 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 and straightening irons). When cooking, use the back burners and turn pot handles inward.

Keep a list of emergency numbers near the phone, like the Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222), and lock rooms that are not childproof.

Technology

Ideally, preschoolers should watch no more than an hour of screens per day, and it should be high-quality programming aimed at young children. If possible, parents should co-view programming with their kids and interact with the content by making observations or asking questions. "Screen time should not only be alone time," notes Dr. Poinsett. "Engage with your child by playing a video game with them, watching a TV program with them."

Screen time is not all bad, but it's important that it does not take away from other important parts of your preschooler's day. It is especially important to make sure that your child gets around three hours of physical activity. If TV time is shortening active playtime, it's best to pull back on the screen time and make sure your child gets the movement they need.

The blue light emitted by screens can interfere with sleep, so it can help to turn off all devices an hour or two before bedtime.

Your Preschooler's World

Many 3- to 5-year-olds 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 sibling (or two!) or a change in daycare, can be quite stressful for them. Their behaviors may temporarily regress as they adjust to the changes.

Preschoolers also experience empathy for others. They may try to console other kids at daycare or try to help a child who has fallen down. They enjoy being around other children and likely 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. Be patient and gently explain to them why sharing is important, but don't expect them to become sharing pros in an instant. It might take some time for them to grasp the concept. In the meantime, you can help shift their attention to playing with another toy.

Other Tips for Preschoolers

Preschoolers may love the world of make-believe, but don't assume that they know the difference between real and pretend. At this age, children use what they know to deduce whether new information is fact or fantasy. They do not always get it right.

Sharing lots of nonfiction books and realistic media with your child helps them build their knowledge base. That doesn't mean you can only learn about animals or planets and never watch movies about dragons or unicorns. Just make sure that you are exposing your preschooler to plenty of factual information. By age 5 or 6, they will have a fairly strong grasp on what is real and what is pretend.

A Word From Verywell

The preschool years are sometimes referred to as the "magic years." Like every developmental stage, this is a time to cherish. You’re likely to see a lot of physical, emotional, and social growth during the preschool years.

Ages 3 to 5 may also come with challenges for parents, like discipline or sleep regressions. You may also worry about whether your 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 pediatrician.

Originally written by
Vincent Iannelli, MD

Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.

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