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When and how it develops
When your child was a baby, you did everything for her. You changed her diapers when she soiled them, wiped her face when she spit up, and even burped her after meals. But as your child gets older, she'll learn to do more things for herself — from pulling off her shirt to getting her own bowl of cereal in the morning. While watching your child grow ever more independent can be bittersweet, being able to take care of her own needs is an important part of your child's personal and social development.
12 to 18 months
Your child's sense of independence blossoms sometime after her first birthday. Her sense of her own identity is burgeoning (around 15 months, your toddler probably can recognize herself in the mirror; she no longer reaches out to touch the "other" baby — she knows it's her), which in turn makes her want to strike out on her own. And soon after, she, like most toddlers, will probably go through a period of adamantly saying "no" to everything. If you offer to button up her coat, she may protest and wave you off. She may try to do it by herself, but because she's still not very nimble, those little buttons will be too difficult for her to manipulate, bringing on a tantrum. Insisting on doing things her way is how she asserts herself now that she is beginning to feel more separate from you.
As early as 13 months, your toddler may begin to take her clothes off, usually starting with elastic-waist pants and socks that can be pulled off. She may even progress to shirts, dresses, and other more complicated items. While you may get frustrated the seventh time you have to put her socks back on, this is an impressive accomplishment and she's likely to be duly proud.
One skill that she will begin to master at this time is using utensils. Some toddlers start wanting to use forks and spoons as early as 13 months, and most children have figured out this important skill by 18 months. But don't expect her to be very dexterous; just because she can hold a spoon doesn't mean she can successfully bring food to her mouth! Your child probably won't be able to hold her utensils like an adult until she's around 4 years old, so be prepared for lots of messes in the meantime.
19 to 24 months
By around 20 months, most toddlers have learned to undress themselves. This is a key accomplishment, one that she's likely to show you again and again. Now's the time when your household may be exposed to lots of naked-toddler chases! And once she learns to undress, she'll start to put on her own clothes, too — perhaps as early as 20 months. But she'll need a little more time before she can manage a T-shirt — or anything she needs to pull over her head — which calls for a level of agility she has yet to develop.
She also may begin to show interest in toilet training, although some toddlers aren't ready to begin for as much as a year after that first spark of interest. Two key signs of readiness include being able to pull her pants up and down by herself and knowing when she has to go before it happens. For more, see BabyCenter's complete toilet training guide.
If she is potty training, she should also know how to wash and dry her hands — you don't want her spreading bacteria. You'll need to show her how step by step, and will probably have to remind her often to do it, too.
25 to 30 months
While she may already know how to dress and undress herself, around now she's also likely to start pulling off her shoes. And while this may seem like a simple skill, it's actually not — she needs to be quite nimble to negotiate taking her shoes off one by one, and doing this standing up requires balancing on one foot. She also may go through several clothing changes a day, and this is fine — toddlers are notoriously messy anyway and often end up with their clothes streaked with food or finger paint. On the flip side, though, if your toddler doesn't want to change her clothes but you want her to because she's a mess, consider giving up — this is the time to relax your expectations a bit.
Your toddler can start to follow some basic rules of hygiene. She probably doesn't yet remember to grab a tissue and blow into it to clear a stuffy nose, so you may need to wipe her nose from time to time, but if she needs to sneeze, you can teach her to sink her face into her elbow. Preschools teach this technique to avoid children spraying germs everywhere and to prevent them from using their hands to cover their mouths.
This is the "I want to do it myself" age, so your toddler may begin to insist on brushing her teeth herself. Let her make a first pass, but follow up with a more thorough cleaning yourself. Your toddler won't be capable of really brushing her teeth herself until much later — possibly not until she's 6 or 7. It takes quite a bit of coordination for her to hold a toothbrush and maneuver it around her mouth so that she's really cleaning in there.
31 to 36 months
As your toddler's third birthday approaches, she'll begin wanting to do more and more things herself. While she may not be capable of fetching a bowl, filling it with cereal, and pouring on the milk all by herself, you can break up these tasks and let her do as much as possible. For example you could have her bring you a bowl, then you pour the cereal, then she pours the milk from a small pitcher or measuring cup. You can encourage your toddler's independence by putting healthy snacks and unbreakable dishes within her reach and letting her get simple snacks such as handfuls of crackers. She may spill or drop some on the floor sometimes, but applaud her efforts anyway.
At this age your toddler will begin wanting to put on her own shoes and may even attempt to buckle or Velcro them (tying comes later). While this may mean the morning routine takes 10 minutes longer, it's worth it to build in the time if you can by getting up earlier than you absolutely have to. Your almost-3-year-old will also delight in being a "helper" and can do things like bringing you the hairbrush and box of barrettes in the morning, or setting the table with spoons and forks for dinner. Take advantage of this stage by teaching your toddler to carry her own plate to the sink after she eats and to put away her toys when she's done playing with them. She's not ready to clean up her room by herself, but if you ask her to put the blocks back into the box or help you stack the books up next to the bookcase she'll most likely join in happily.
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 herself by the time she's 2, or seems incapable of taking care of the most basic needs such as feeding herself with utensils, tell her pediatrician at her next checkup. Keep in mind, though, that premature babies may reach these and other milestones later than their peers.
Whereas toddlers may not have been all that interested in picking out their own clothes before age 3, many preschoolers become fashion conscious, much to the chagrin of frenzied parents with no extra time to spare for mulling over outfits nor much appreciation for the clashing colors many toddlers favor. If yours insists on choosing her own ensemble, allot enough time in your schedule for her decision-making. Or give her two options and let her make the choice between them, even if it means she looks like a neon sign. Some parents save time in the morning by having their child lay out her clothes the night before. The sense of pride she'll get from choosing her own clothes is worth all the trouble.
Advances in other self-care skills come fast and furiously during the preschool years. Most kids have the basics of self-care — dressing, washing their hands, feeding themselves, and going to the bathroom (but not necessarily wiping!) on their own — mastered by or soon after their fourth birthday.
As the months and years roll by, your child will get better and better at meeting her own needs. Before you know it, she'll be able to tie her shoes and take a shower or bath by herself — and then it's just a matter of time until she can do laundry and cook dinner, not to mention drive herself to soccer practice. By then you'll be wishing she'd let you baby her once in a while, but her refusal to give up her autonomy will be a testament to all the work you did teaching her to care for herself. Learn more on how to encourage self-care skills.