self dressing

When Do Toddlers Start Self-Dressing?

When your child reaches toddlerhood, there is a burst in development as she begins to walk, talk, and start potty training. Still, self-dressing is particularly essential because it uses so many different skills. 

As a parent, you may have noticed your little one has started to take an interest in dressing themselves. 

This can be exciting for them as they feel like they are getting some independence and control over their clothes and appearance. 

You might also notice that it takes much longer than what you are used to before they need help or start whining about being frustrated. It’s time to learn how toddlers self-dress!

A child being able to dress herself is such a significant psychological and emotional milestone. 

Because children are driven to be independent, you can bet that your tot’s got her eye on wearing that floral-print bathing suit of hers — even on a frosty January day! 

Without opportunities to experience being independent, the less confident a child will feel. The feeling of accomplishment positively affects a child’s self-esteem.

Self-dressing also lays the foundation for tackling additional gross and fine motor challenges, like gripping objects (e.g., writing, drawing, cutting) and self-feeding.

Why Self-Dressing Skills Are Important?

Occupational Therapy professionals understand that dressing is an essential Activity of Daily Living (ADL). Being able to get dressed is a fundamental component of participation in daily life. 

Occupational Therapists know from experience that kids’ ability to dress themselves plays a big part in relieving family stress and improving family routines.

This is true whether a child has a disability or not.

Occupational Therapists can help parents and children learn how to build skills and modify dressing tasks to allow children to be more successful and independent.

Research has shown that, for parents of children with autism, improving independence in ADLs such as dressing, feeding, and personal hygiene are often priorities because they improve the child’s ability to live independently and reduce the need for one-on-one assistance at home and in the community.

Not only is it helpful when a child can dress him or herself, but it’s also beneficial to the child in many ways

They work on building up strength, range of motion, coordination, memory, sequencing, spatial awareness, and body awareness and learning how to complete a daily activity that is important and meaningful to them.

I bet you never thought about how life-enhancing it is to be able to dress yourself every day, did you?

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So When Exactly Can Kids Learn to Dress Themselves, Anyways?

Below is a list of developmental milestones related to self-dressing skills. 

These are meant to be general guidelines for when these skills tend to emerge typically and are not meant for you to be able to “diagnose” or “identify” whether your child has a developmental delay or not. 

There’s more to it than that. If you have concerns about your child’s development (including self-help skills), talk to the pediatrician and local occupational therapist.

Keep in mind that, in general, taking off or pulling down clothing tends to be easier than putting on or pulling up a dress.

You may be surprised at how early some of these skills are expected to emerge…yep, little kids really CAN do a lot for themselves when given appropriate opportunities, instruction, and expectations! 

So let’s give our kids a chance to develop some independence and give our sleepy selves a break!

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By 12 Months of Age:

Cooperates with dressing by putting arm or leg out (for coat, shoe, etc.)

By 18 Months of Age:

Removes loose-fitting hat

Removes loose-fitting socks

Places loose-fitting hat on head

By 2 Years of Age:

Removes low-top shoes when laces or fasteners are undone

Unzips large zipper

Zips large zipper after adult hooks it and holds base taut

Unbuttons large, flat buttons (1-inch wide, holes wider than buttons)

By 2 1/2 Years of Age:

Puts shoes on with assistance (needs help with correct feet, fasteners, etc.)

Pulls down pants, with assistance for fasteners and clearing hips

Undresses (jacket, shirt, pants, shoes, socks, underwear) with help for fasteners, pullover garments with a narrow neck, and reminders regarding the sequence

By 3 Years of Age:

Takes off front-opening clothing

Pulls up loose-fitting pants or shorts from floor to waist, with assistance for fasteners or clearing hips

Dresses self (hats, shoes, socks, pants, underwear, shirt, jacket, coat), with assistance for fasteners, laces, and identifying left/right and front/back (by 32 months of age)

Dresses self with supervision (pullover shirts, coats, dresses), requires assistance for correct foot, snaps, laces, buckles (32+ months)

By 3 1/2 Years of Age:

Independently pulls pants down from the waist to feet

Buttons large buttons (1-inch wide, may not button in correct order)

Takes shoes off completely (undoes laces, Velcro, etc.), voluntarily or when asked

Puts shoes on correct feet (but doesn’t necessarily understand the concept of left/right)

Unzips and unsnaps clothing

Puts hands through both armholes of front-opening clothing (e.g., coat, button-down shirt)

Pushes arm into the second sleeve of front-open clothing and then pulls dress to shoulders (e.g., jacket)

Removes pullover clothing from both arms and attempts to pull overhead

By 4 Years of Age: 

Takes off pullover clothing completely, may need some assistance

Takes off front-opening dress completely

Puts on pullover shirt incorrect front/back position

Puts sock on all the way

Lines up and closes at least one snap on clothing (e.g., pants, shirt)

By 4 1/2 Years of Age: 

Unbuttons front-opening clothing

Buttons front-opening clothing (e.g., button-down shirt)

Puts on weather-appropriate dress without prompting (e.g., puts on a coat if cold outside)

Tightens shoelaces by pulling up or out

By 5 Years of Age: 

Places jacket or coat on designated hook or place

Undresses daily at set times without reminders

By 5 1/2 Years of Age: 

Dresses independently when asked

Tucks in shirt

By six years of age: 

Ties shoes, following step-by-step demonstration/support

Independently zips up front-opening clothing (hooks zipper base, holds tab, pulls up)

Puts on activity-appropriate clothing without prompting (based on activity or setting)

Selects clean clothing and changes underclothes regularly

Places front-opening garment on a hanger, fastens it, and hangs it up

By 6 1/2 Years of Age: 

Puts laces in shoes and laces correctly (using alternating eyelets)

Independently ties shoelaces

Turns clothing right side out (takes the bottom of the item and pulls it through neck area, or fixes front-opening garment by turning inside out and then straightening it)

So the answer is:

Given appropriate opportunities, instructions, and expectations, kids should be able to dress themselves around Kindergarten age independently.

While that doesn’t mean they won’t need help here and there for tricky shoes or stubborn zippers, they should be able to meet most of their basic self-dressing needs by this age.

Type of Development: Cognitive, Gross Motor, and Fine Motor Skills

Just as there’s a variety of clothes to wear, a child needs to master a variety of skills when it comes to dressing herself. These skills include:

  • Gross motor: lifting arms and legs in specific coordinated motions into shirt sleeves and pant legs and balancing to take off shoes and pants
  • Fine motor: being able to use fingers to manipulate small objects (zippers, buttons, buckles, and laces)
  • Cognitive: being able to understand the sequence of putting on clothing and to think about how seasons and temperature affect what should be worn

When to Expect Self-Dressing to Begin?

Before your kiddo masters the art of dressing, you should expect her to undress first and take off socks, shoes, and pants. 

Around 18 months of age, and sometimes even younger, toddlers will start undressing because it doesn’t require as much skill.

They’re like little Houdinis and can get out of anything. Parents shouldn’t be surprised to walk into their child’s bedroom in the morning and find her with nothing on. 

Your mini nudist won’t take an interest in putting clothes on until she’s about 2 1/2 to 3 years old. Usually, she will put on simple things around this time, like T-shirts and dresses, without any complicated buttons or zippers.

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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, recognise her effort as a job well done. 

If you’re headed out for the day, you may want to explain that her shirt needs to be adjusted gently, 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. Emotions can shift within seconds. 

She can go from joy at putting on her favourite pink dress to frustration at not getting a piece of clothing on our feeling that a shirt seems too tight. 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. 

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 if you may be hustling to get out the door in the morning, give her space and time to get dressed.

Red Flags to Watch For

If your child isn’t dressing himself by 30 months, ask yourself, “Am I always pitching in and doing it for him?” If the answer is “yes,” the solution might be as simple as giving him space to fiddle with buttons and zippers on his own. 

But if your child still seems to be struggling with taking off socks and shoes (if he still can’t pull off a hose after a significant amount of time or has a poor grip), he may have decreased strength and motor planning or sensory issues. 

If you suspect this might be the case, contact your pediatrician for a more thorough evaluation.

The Inception of Undressing

On average, a child should remove some of his clothing without aid between the ages of 22 and 30 months. Of course, there are aberrations, where some kids reach this stage as early as 18 months, while other kids take much longer. Undressing, like any other milestone, differs from one child to another.

The Right Age for Undressing Without Help

If you’re wondering when toddlers should dress and undress completely, remember that this development stage will appear by their third birthday. 

So, if you have a 3-year-old child, be sure to find your tot plunging in the pool in his swimwear before you can even say, “Let’s change!”

The Right Age When Children Can Dress Themselves Completely

Keep those tough back zips, tricky buttons, shoelaces, and complicated snaps aside, and you can expect a 4 to 5-year-old child to dress himself entirely. 

Children of this age are likely to put on their underwear, pants, socks, shirts, and shoes without any difficulty. 

A child as young as one or two years of age will somewhat attempt at dressing himself, too.

Take Stock of Your Child’s Willingness

It’s important to remember that each toddler’s personality is different and plays an essential role in his willingness to learn the skill of dressing. 

Children with a self-driven, ready-to-grow mentality are likely to take up dressing responsibilities faster. 

Consequently, those who love being cuddled and tickled after a bath are likely to be less spontaneous in this department. 

However, in time, you’ll see such toddlers dressing themselves all on their own, too.

Some Tips to Remember

Keep clothes comfy and easy to put on and take off. Not only will this make it easier, but it will also get them excited that they can do it by themselves. 

When they get frustrated with snaps and buttons, it could discourage them from continuing to try. 

Look for clothing with elastic waistbands, Velcro instead of buttons and that is soft and stretchy.

Let them pick their clothes. You may want to make sure they aren’t choosing from their pyjama drawer, but letting kids choose their outfit empowers them to learn self-care. 

We’ve heard of parents that let their preschoolers choose between a handful of outfits so that they get what they want, but they don’t look unruly.

Don’t just do it for them. Sometimes you’re running late, and you need the kid dressed; we get it. 

But make sure there is a time of day when your child can go for it without your help. 

It may be after bath time when they’re putting on their jammies or a weekend when you’re not pressed for time. You’ll be surprised at what they can do when you back off just a bit.

When they do it (right or wrong), praise them! Their shirt is backward and inside out? Great job! 

They put their arms and head in suitable holes, and that’s a significant accomplishment! When they are learning how to start dressing, make sure you focus on the positives, so they stay encouraged to keep trying. 

If you need to make sure their clothes are turned around, make sure they know they did a great job and that you need to make sure it’s comfy before you leave. 

The following steps help make the process of Encouraging Children To Dress Independently more accessible.

Accessibility

The children need to be able to access their clothes themselves. 

Drawers can often get messy quickly with little hands ruffling through them, so use boxes to divide clothes into groups and make it easier for them to find what they are looking for.

Limit Choice

Too many choices for a two-year-old can decide what to wear go on for ages! 

Limiting the number of clothes in their drawers/wardrobe aids them to come to a quicker decision. 

The choice available also needs to be weather appropriate. If a child has a favourite pair of shorts, they are likely to choose them to wear regardless of freezing outside.

Time

Ensure that they have plenty of time to dress and that you are not hovering over them and trying to hurry them up.

Limit the Learning Focus

It helps the children if we focus on one area at a time of dressing themselves. As noted, the first thing to focus on is underwear and pants. 

It builds their confidence to achieve success with one item before moving on to the next. It can be pretty overwhelming to a child to expect them to do everything themselves at once.

Recognise the Process

It can be tempting when a child learning to dress themselves comes out with a t-shirt on the back or with a shirt button missing to go straight to them and fix it up or explain to them that they need to fix it. 

By this being the first thing we say to them, it can be very discouraging for a child.

It is essential to acknowledge that they have tried to dress and managed to get the relevant articles of clothing on their body. 

Acknowledging that the process they followed – choosing clothes, applying themselves to get the item on, persisting with slight finger movements to do up their buttons etc.

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