As children get older, they learn to do more things for themselves, from taking off their shirt to getting their own bowl of cereal in the morning. Watching your little one become more independent can be bittersweet, but it's a crucial part of every child's personal and social development.
When it develops
Your child will probably start doing things for himself sometime after his first birthday. But every child develops at his own pace, and yours may be more interested in learning one set of skills before mastering another. So try not to worry too much if your child's developing differently than other kids the same age.
Advances come fast and furiously by 18 months, and while children will still need lots of help and attention for years to come, most will have the basics of self-care – dressing, washing their hands, feeding themselves, and going to the bathroom on their own – mastered by or soon after their fourth birthday.
How it develops
Although your child won't make significant progress in self-care until the toddler years, you'll see the first stirrings fairly early on. At about 8 months, your baby will begin to understand how objects relate to one another and may begin using them for their intended function – brushing her hair, babbling on her play phone, and so on.
A few weeks later, she'll start learning how to drink out of a cup, and in a few months she'll be able to hold the cup herself (the one-handed grip often comes at about 24 months). By 11 months, she'll even start holding out her arm or leg to help you dress her.
Your child will really start developing her own sense of self in the first few months after her first birthday. By 18 months, your toddler will recognize herself in the mirror – no longer will she reach out and try to touch the "other" baby.
And soon after, she'll probably go through a period of saying "no" to lots of things. It's her way of asserting her independence.
7 self-care milestones to look forward to
As the sense of self increases, so will your child's achievements in self-care. He'll naturally develop and fine-tune his motor skills over the next three years to master:
- Using a spoon: Some toddlers start wanting to use utensils as early as 13 months, and most children have figured out this all-important skill by 17 or 18 months. By age 4, your child will probably be able to hold utensils like an adult and be ready to learn table manners. Until then, be prepared to help out.
- Undressing: While the ability to take his own clothes off may lead to lots of naked-toddler chase sessions, it's a key accomplishment. Most children learn to pull off loose pants and shirts sometime between 13 and 24 months.
- Toothbrushing: Your child may start wanting to help with this task as early as 16 months, but probably won't be able to handle a toothbrush skillfully until sometime between her third and fourth birthdays. Even then, dentists say, kids can't do a thorough job on their teeth until much later.
Pediatric dentists recommend that parents do a thorough brushing of their kids' teeth every night until school age or later. As a compromise, if your child is eager to brush, let her do the morning brushing herself. Or let her brush first, and then you finish up. (Read more about tooth care for toddlers.)
- Washing and drying hands: This skill develops at 24 months or so and is something kids should learn before or at the same time as using the toilet – you don't want your child spreading germs.
- Getting dressed: Your little one may be able to put on loose clothing as early as 24 months, but he'll need a few more months before being able to manage a T-shirt, and another year or two after that before he'll really be able to get dressed all by himself. Also at 24 months, he'll probably be able to pull off his shoes.
- Using the toilet: Most kids aren't physically ready to start toilet training until they're at least 18 to 24 months old. Two key signs of readiness for a child include being able to pull her pants up and down by herself and knowing when she has to go before it happens. For more guidance, see BabyCenter's complete toilet training guide.
- Preparing breakfast: Toddlers as young as 3 may be able to get themselves a bowl of cereal when they're hungry, and most kids can do it by the time they're 4 1/2. If your child wants to give this a whirl, make it easy by leaving kid-size containers of cereal and milk in the cupboard and fridge.
As the months and years roll by, your child will get better and better at taking care of himself. Before you know it, he'll be able to tie his shoes and take a shower or bath by himself – and then it's just a matter of time until he can do laundry and cook dinner, not to mention drive himself to the movies.
As always, encouragement is key. Whenever your child tries her hand at a new skill, whether she succeeds or not, tell her you're proud she made the effort and urge her to try again.
Along the same lines, don't step in too quickly to help. It's essential that she have enough time to master these things on her own, at her own pace (so don't pressure her before she's ready, either).
Be flexible. If learning to wash her hands means a messy bathroom for a few days, or if getting dressed on her own means she spends a week running around in an old pink turtleneck, a bright red skirt, blue jeans, and flip flops, go with the flow. The more she practices, the better she'll be.
Be sure to keep a watchful eye on your child as she begins to experiment with doing things on her own. Set limits and explain them: Tell her why it's not safe for her to turn on the oven by herself or cut her own meat just yet. She probably won't be very happy about it, but she'll get the idea eventually.
When to be concerned
Children develop skills differently, some more quickly than others, but if your child hasn't shown interest in doing anything for himself by the time he's 2, tell the doctor at his next appointment. Keep in mind that premature babies may reach these and other milestones later than their peers.