Toddler Parenting Tips (1- and 2-Year-Olds)

The best advice for raising happy, healthy toddlers

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If your living room is strewn with Legos and your coffee is always cold, you might have a toddler. Toddlers seem to be in a constant state of motion. As their new walking skills allow them to cover more ground, you may find yourself feeling a bit spent as you follow along with them to make sure they stay safe.

Toddlers have a blossoming sense of independence that spans into the nighttime hours as well. You may find yourself dealing yet again with nighttime wake-ups, but this time your child doesn't just cry for you—they walk right out of their bed and come find you.

Along with being active and curious, toddlers can be highly emotional. Don't be surprised if they shriek with glee when you tell them you're headed to the beach or if they melt down completely when they can't put their shoes on themselves. And when the tantrums come, it can seem like nothing you do can stop them.

As your child continues to grow and develop, their daily needs and activities will change right along with them. Take a closer look at what to expect during the toddler years when it comes to diet and nutrition, sleep, safety, health concerns, and more.

Strategies for parenting your toddler
Illustration by Emily Roberts, Verywell

Daily Life

Toddlers aren't physically growing as much as they did when they were babies. Instead, they are developing gross motor skills and sharpening their cognition. Their daily lives are filled with sleeping, eating, and physical activity.

Diet and Nutrition

You may feel a little concerned if your toddler seems to eat less than they did as a baby. But this is common and expected. After age 1, babies aren't growing as fast, so they don't need as much food. "Kids at this age tend to be very picky and eat a lot less than they did when they were younger, both because they are slowing down their growth rate and because they become mobile," explains Elham Raker, M.D., a pediatrician and founder of the blog Ask Dr. Mom.

If your little one scarfs down their lunch and asks for a third helping, but takes only a bit of banana for dinner, there's no need to worry. Toddlers need roughly 1,000 calories per day, spread out over three meals and two snacks, but they tend to take it in varying amounts.

The important thing is to offer your toddler a variety of nutritious foods. This should include vegetables, fruits, proteins, starches, and healthy fats. Portions don't need to be big—you may be surprised to learn that toddler serving is only about a tablespoon. "Do not worry about the quantity of food, just offer good quality food," notes Dr. Raker.

To build healthy eating habits, you should decide what you are going to serve, and your child should decide which of the available foods they eat and how much. Try not to make food a big deal. If your toddler refuses to try a new food, say "OK," remove the food, and then offer it again another time.

Milk and dairy products like cheese and yogurt are an important part of a toddler's diet. But if your toddler hasn't turned 2 yet, don't reach for the low-fat milk. At age 1, babies still need full-fat dairy products to support their brain development.

If your toddler still loves their bottle, they might be in for a rude awakening. The AAP recommends that babies give up the bottle between 12 and 24 months to prevent tooth decay and to ensure that they don't fill up on milk instead of eating enough food.

"Too much cow's milk also inhibits iron absorption and may impact sleep," explains Heather Wallace, a certified pediatric sleep consultant and postpartum doula, and the owner of BraveHeart consulting. "You want to stick to no more than 16 ounces of cow's milk per day. But if your toddler won't drink that much milk from their sippy cup, supplement by offering foods high in protein and healthy fats such as avocado, beans, eggs, cheese, greek yogurt, hummus, and tofu."

When you do switch to a cup, you may find that your toddler drinks a lot less milk. This is pretty typical and it is not a cause for concern. Continue to offer unsweetened milk or water with meals and snacks. Skip the juice, which is high in sugar while lacking the fiber found in whole fruits.

Toddlers may love to explore different types of foods, but there are foods that pose a choking hazard that needs to be avoided. This includes whole carrots, cherry tomatoes, hot dogs, and grapes. Peanut butter can also be a choking hazard if eaten by the spoonful.

Physical Activity

When your toddler takes their first steps, they may walk carefully and a bit unsteadily, but it won't be long until they are running. You may feel as if you are raising a little whirlwind. Gross motor skills develop rapidly during the toddler years, and your little one's blossoming curiosity will help to propel them as far they can go.

Toddlers require at least three hours of physical activity each day. "At this age, kids are starting to explore their environment and will naturally want to try new things, like running and climbing stairs," says Dr. Raker. "Let them explore while keeping safety measures in place."

The good news is that as long as you can provide the space for your child to move, they will get the exercise they need on their own. "Outdoor activities are the best if weather permits, like parks and outdoor play structures," notes Dr. Raker. Taking walks around your neighborhood and or letting your toddler lead the way on a forest trail or along the beach are perfect ways to make sure your child gets enough physical movement in their day.

Toddlers don't yet need organized sports, but they may enjoy low-pressure parent and child classes such as soccer, yoga, or music classes. They learn and develop best through play.

Around the House

You might see your toddler pick up the broom and try to sweep or put on a pair of your shoes. Your little one will likely want to be by your side most of the time they're awake. It’s important to let them get involved in some of the activities you’re doing.

While it may be easier and quicker to do everything yourself, allowing your toddler to help in even the smallest ways can keep them active and teach important skills. You can ask them to throw a napkin in the trash for you or allow them to use their toy broom to sweep alongside you.

Chores for toddlers will mostly consist of picking up toys, putting dirty clothes in a hamper, or putting books back on the shelf. Your little one will likely be interested in helping you do chores too. Allow an older toddler to assist you in wiping up messes, caring for pets, and making the bed.

The best way to spend time with your toddler is to get down on the floor alongside them in a child-friendly space—but follow their lead. If they are playing with a doll, play with them.

It's fine if you can't play with your toddler every moment though. "It's a good idea to have one drawer that your toddler can explore safely," says Dr. Raker. "This can help meet their needs for curiosity in a safe way."

Just don’t be too concerned about whether they're doing things “the right way.” In a toddler’s imaginative play, it’s OK for bathtubs to be on the roof of the house and it’s fine for cars to talk.

Health and Safety

Regular wellness visits are key to ensuring your toddler is on target with developmental milestones. They also allow your child's pediatrician to keep track of their growth and provide immunization against certain illnesses.

Visiting the Doctor

Well-child visits for toddlers usually occur with a pediatrician at 12, 15, 18, and 24 months of age. The AAP's vaccine schedule gives a variety of immunizations to 1-year-olds, but your child may only need a flu shot at their 2-year appointment.

Your child's pediatrician can help answer questions about nutrition, behavior, sleep, and any other concerns you may have. They will look at how your toddler is growing and how well they are meeting milestones.

Potty Training

Toddlers are interested in trying to do what adults do, and toileting is no exception! Even if you're not ready to start potty training yet, it's a good idea to get a child-sized potty sometime after your child's first birthday.

There are specific developmental milestones that your child should reach before you tackle potty training. These include the ability to recognize that they need to go, bladder and bowel control, and language skills that allow them to tell you when they need to use the toilet.

Praise works best when you are potty training your child. It may be frustrating when they have an accident, but try to stay outwardly calm so they don't feel you are disappointed. Punishment should never be used while potty training, but you can use logical consequences such as having your child help you clean up a mess.

Sleep

If you put your child to bed later after a fun family day at the fair, you might notice that they are more likely to have tantrums the following day. Getting enough sleep is still very important for toddlers, who still need 11 to 14 hours of sleep per 24 hours.

Sleep problems may resurface during the toddler years. "You may find that your toddler is staying up longer before falling asleep at bedtime, chatting to himself, rolling around, even crying," says Wallace. "This could be a sign that your young toddler is ready to transition to one nap."

The transition to one nap occurs around 12 to 15 months of age, and you will know it's time when you see your toddler's sleep is affected. "Your toddler might shorten one or both of the naps, fight bedtime, have long night wakings, or early morning wake-ups," notes Wallace.

Instead of a later morning nap and a mid-afternoon nap, your child may do best with one longer nap right after lunch. "Typically a midday nap around noon will allow your toddler to get more quality consolidated sleep, rather than two shorter naps in the day," explains Wallace.

The toddler stage also typically includes the transition from sleeping in a crib to sleeping in a big kid bed. You don't have to rush into this transition unless your child is attempting to climb out of their crib.

Safety

Injuries are the leading cause of death for children under age 4 in the U.S. Many of those injuries can be prevented if you follow some basic safety guidelines. Consider removing firearms from the home when you have a toddler. If you choose to keep a gun, keep it unloaded and locked in a safe place. Store the ammunition separately. When your child visits another home or if they attend an in-home daycare, ask how guns are stored.

Toddlers explore by putting everything in their mouths. Use safety caps on any toxic household products and medicines—and keep them out of sight and out of reach. Store the number to poison control on your phone and post it in your house so you can find it easily in the event of an emergency.

Most falls aren’t a problem, but stairs, sharp-edged furniture, and open windows can pose a serious risk. Use gates to keep your toddler away from stairs and install window guards above the first floor. Don’t leave chairs or objects your child can use to climb on nearby countertops or tables.

Water safety is of utmost importance during the toddler years. It only takes two inches of water for a toddler to drown. Keep bathroom doors closed and never leave your child alone near a bathtub, a pail of water, wading or swimming pool, or any other body of water. Stay within an arm’s length of your child when near water.

A car seat can save your toddler's life. And as uncomfortable as it might be, toddlers should remain in rear-facing car seats as long as possible, until they reach the height and weight recommended by the safety seat’s manufacturer. Be sure safety seats are installed correctly, and never leave your child alone in or around the car.

Technology

No matter how educational an app claims to be, the truth is that your toddler learns best from real-life interactions. It's important to be careful about how you incorporate technology into your toddler's life. Before 18 months, it is advised to avoid all screen time, with the possible exception of video-chatting with relatives.

Once your child turns 18 months, you can let them view high-quality programming for as long as about an hour per day, but don't get too excited about having extra time to cook or catch up on things around the house. Kids at this age still learn best from interaction, so it's important to view the content together with them and interact with it, such as pointing things out about the show or asking them questions as you watch.

It is important to make sure that screen time does not interfere with your toddler getting the recommended three hours of physical activity each day.

Your Toddler's World

Toddlers want to explore as much of the world as they can. From how something like a block sounds when it’s banged on the floor to how dirt tastes when they put it in their mouth, they’re constantly trying to learn everything they can.

Try to foster your toddler's sense of curiosity in safe and healthy ways. Instead of always saying no, find ways to give your toddler the freedom to explore. For example, have one drawer in your kitchen that your toddler is free to open and take things out of. You can put toys, measuring cups, or anything else for your child to touch and play with.

Toddlers are generally only concerned with their own needs as they don’t yet have the capacity to put themselves in anyone else’s shoes. So your toddler will likely experience a lot of frustration if they don’t get their way.

Often, distraction is your best bet. You can pick up your child and move them away from whatever it is that they want and can't have, and try to put their attention on something else. For example, if they want to get a toy that you don't plan to buy them, you can tell them the toy will stay in the store and then head to another aisle.

It is also wise to be proactive and avoid situations that you think might set your toddler off. Maybe you walk around the block to avoid passing by the playground when you know you won't be able to stop there.

Some toddlers have separation anxiety when you drop them off at daycare. If your child struggles with this, give them a loving kiss and hug, and remind them that you will come back later. Don't linger if you don't want to do so every day. Toddlers do better with drop-off if it's a quick, consistent routine.

Other Tips for Your Toddler

Toddlers love the process of doing simple chores or activities such as washing fruit or scooping lemons out of a bucket of water with a slotted spoon. While adults complete tasks as a means to an end, toddlers see work as the end itself.

For example, we may sweep the floor to get it clean. But toddlers actually love the idea that they are sweeping. Try scattering some small pompoms over the floor for your toddler to sweep up with a broom and dustpan just their size. Most likely, they will enjoy pouring the pompoms back out and repeating the process many times over.

Toddlers have a lot of energy and they do best when they are able to be on the move. If your toddler seems to never get enough movement no matter what, try giving them "heavy work" to do, such as carrying a backpack walking over a hill, or pushing a toy grocery cart full of food or other items. Some little ones actually crave these types of activities, because they feel an urge to use their developing muscles.

A Word From Verywell

Toddlers are a lot of fun, but they often seem to defy all the rules of logic you thought you knew. Whether it's a tantrum because their green socks are in the wash or an unstoppable urge to pull all your tampons out of the box and line them up on the floor, toddlers are certainly a handful.

Learning more about your child’s development can be key to helping you be a confident parent. Read parenting books on the toddler years, ask questions, and look for resources that will help you be prepared to deal with everything from tantrums to potty training. Always reach out to your pediatrician if you have any questions about your toddler's health or behavior.

Originally written by
Stephanie Brown
Stephanie Brown is a parenting writer with experience in the Head Start program and in NAEYC accredited child care centers.
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