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Developmental milestones: self-care (from BabyCenter)


As your child gets older, she'll learn to do more things for herself — from taking off her clothes to getting her own bowl of cereal in the morning. While watching your baby's growing independence can be bittersweet, learning to take care of herself is an important part of your child's personal and social development.

When self-care develops

Your child will probably start doing things for herself soon after her first birthday. Advances come fast and furiously at around 18 months. Children still need lots of help and attention for years to come, but most will have the basics of self-care — dressing, brushing their teeth, washing their hands, feeding themselves and going to the toilet on their own — mastered by around their fourth birthday.

How self-care develops

Although your child won't make significant progress in self-care until her toddler year, you'll see the first stirrings fairly early on. At about eight 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. (To begin with she'll use two hands; the one-handed grip will come at about 24 months). At 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 15 months, your toddler will recognise herself in the mirror — she'll no longer reach out to try to touch the "other" baby. And soon after, like most toddlers, she will probably go through a period of adamant no-saying. It's her way of asserting her new feelings of individuality.

As her sense of self increases, so will her ability to look after herself. Over the next three years your child will master:
  • Using a fork and spoon: Some toddlers may start wanting to use cutlery as early as 13 months, and most children have grasped this all-important skill by 17 or 18 months. By the time she's four, your child will probably be able to hold her fork or spoon like an adult, and she'll be ready to learn table manners.
  • Taking off her own clothes: While this may lead to lots of chase-the-naked-toddler sessions, it's a key accomplishment and your child will learn to do it sometime between 13 and 20 months.
  • Brushing her teeth: She may start wanting to help brush her own teeth as early as 16 months, but she probably won't be able to do it on her own until somewhere between her third and fourth birthdays.
  • Washing and drying her hands: This skill develops between 19 and 30 months and is something your child should learn before or at the same time as using the toilet to encourage good hygiene.
  • Getting dressed: She may be able to put on loose clothing as early as 20 months, but she'll need a few more months before she can manage a T-shirt and another year or two after that before she'll really be able to get dressed all by herself. At 27 months, she'll probably be able to pull off her shoes.
  • Using the toilet: Most children aren't physically ready to start toilet training until they're at least 18 to 24 months old, and some won't be ready to start for as much as a year after that. Two key signs of readiness include being able to pull her trousers up and down by herself and knowing when she has to go before it happens. For more information, see our complete toilet-training guide.
  • Preparing her own breakfast: Children as young as three may be able to get themselves a bowl of cereal when they're hungry, and most children can do it by the time they're four and a half.

What's next

As the months and years roll by, your child will get better and better at taking care of herself. Before you know it, she'll be able to tie her shoelaces and have 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 a car!

Your role

As always, encouragement is key. Whenever your child tries her hand at a new skill, whether she succeeds or not, let her know that you're proud she made the effort and urge her to try again. Don't step in too quickly to help — it's important that she has enough time to master these things on her own and at her own pace. 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 day running around in an old pink jumper, a bright red skirt, jeans and flip flops, go with the flow. The more she practises, the better she'll be.

Make sure you 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 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 an interest in doing anything for herself by the time she's two, mention it to your child health nurse or your doctor. Keep in mind that premature babies may reach these and other milestones later than their peers.

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