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Toddler development: Getting dressed

4-minute read

Learning how to dress and undress are lifelong skills that start in childhood. Toddlers are naturally inquisitive, independent and eager to learn, including how to make decisions and push boundaries when it comes to choosing outfits.

Why is it important for my toddler to learn how to dress themselves?

Learning how to put on clothes and shoes helps toddlers to become confident and feel a sense of achievement. Their self-esteem also gets a boost when they are able to dress themselves.

When will my toddler show interest in dressing themselves?

There’s no golden age when children become interested in learning how to dress. Some toddlers are keen to dress themselves and change multiple times a day. Others seem not to care at all.

Most toddlers start with taking clothes and shoes off first, before they learn how to put them back on. Easy-to-remove hats, shoes, socks and trousers are often the first to go. As they get older, children build skills in more complex aspects of dressing, including what clothes to wear for the weather.

Dressing for toddlers is a process, wherein it’s not just the end result that is important, but also the journey. Getting dressed relies on a range of physical skills including fine and gross motor skills, hand-eye coordination, decision making and even organisation.

Dressing also helps build language skills, since toddlers learn how to recognise and name different items of clothing, their colours and where they go on the body. When your child first starts learning how to dress, expect them to put tops over their legs and arms through their pant legs.

When will my child be able to dress themselves?

Children can dress and undress themselves by around the age of 3. This depends on how much practice they’ve had and how much interest they’ve shown. Often, younger children in a family learn how to dress themselves earlier than older siblings did.

Signs your child is ready to start dressing themselves

At around 12 months old, your child may:

  • help when they’re getting dressed
  • put their arms up for tops and jumpers and push their arms through sleeves
  • pull their shoes and socks off, as well as their hat
  • put their feet out for socks and shoes

At around 2 years old, look for your child to:

  • take off an unfastened jumper or coat.
  • pull off shoes with Velcro or elastic fasteners.
  • pull down elasticized pants.
  • find the neck and armholes in tops.

By 3 years old, look for your child to:

  • putting on socks and shoes
  • zipping and unzipping jackets, doing up press studs and practicing with large buttons
  • pulling down pants and underwear
  • putting on tops and t-shirts with no help

How can I help my toddler get started in learning to dress?

  • Start by encouraging them to sit on the floor or bed as they learn to dress as this will help with balance.
  • Give your toddler 2 or 3 choices of what to wear. Limited choices will help to prevent tantrums, which are more common when toddlers feel overwhelmed.
  • Break down dressing into separate tasks which are done in order. Talk your toddler through what they need to do. For example, “Push your head through this hole, reach your arms up,” and so on.
  • Lay clothing out so it’s in the order it needs to go on. For example, dress or pants and T-shirt, then jacket, then socks and shoes.
  • Give your toddler clothing that is easy to get in and out of. For example, elasticized pants, simple T-shirts and tops with an image on the front (to learn front from back).
  • Make sure your toddler has comfortable clothing that allows them to move freely.
  • Let your toddler do what they can, then help them with the harder tasks.
  • Remember to praise your toddler’s attempts at dressing. Name what you see, such as, “Good job putting your arms through the sleeves”.

It's important not to rush your toddler — they will need time and practice to learn. If they make a mistake, first let them recognise where they’ve gone wrong and help them fix it.

When to get help

If you are worried about any aspect of your toddler’s growth or development, you should speak to your doctor or child health nurse.

You can also call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 to speak to a maternal child health nurse.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2021

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