Parenting a Toddler: Helpful Ways to Navigate These Active Years

When parents see their child begin walking, or saying those first complete sentences – or, at least, partial sentences – they know they’ve entered the toddler years.

Your child technically enters the toddler phase after their first birthday, and stay there until they are almost four.  These years are filled with many joyous moments, but they can present challenges to even the most patient and devoted parent.

In this article, we do a deep dive into some of the most challenging hurdles parents and other caregivers face during the toddler years, and suggest a few strategies for dealing with each one of them.

1. Keep their routine consistent in order for smooth sailing.

Naturally every family, on occasion disrupts their routine for, perhaps a special event like a reunion out of state or a holiday in another city. But toddlers need consistency in every part of their lives – their bedtime, meal times, and other elements of their daily schedule. Counting on small things occurring at the same time each day and night allows your toddler to focus on bigger things. Letting them skip meals or stay up late is laying the groundwork for physical and psychological problems later on.

2. Potty training too early may pose more problems than benefits.

Unfortunately, potty training has become something of a competitive sport between some parents – “whose toddler successfully used the potty first? Who is out of diapers even at night?”  But rushing your toddler creates stress and if they are not doing well or using it properly at first, that makes them feel like a failure. If they see disappointment in your eyes, that makes it all much worse. This can lead to insecurity and self-esteem issues in childhood and even later on, as adults. As the experts often say, no child ever makes it to college without being potty trained, so relax!

3. Don’t ditch the crib too early.

This is a surprisingly common mistake many parents make, in the belief that their toddler wants a “grownup bed” like, perhaps, their siblings have. But getting rid of the crib can mean a parent winds up laying down with the toddler night after night because they don’t feel secure or comfortable in a big bed. When that happens, poor or disrupted sleep patterns can occur for both parent and toddler. Experts suggest parents should wait until their toddler asks for a regular bed, usually between the ages of two and three, or when the child is approximately 35 inches long.

4. Expand their menu away from just simple foods.

Do you find yourself serving one meal repeatedly in order to avoid fights and tears about food? Have you been serving mac n’ cheese over and over again because it’s the only food your toddler doesn’t refuse to eat? Unfortunately, giving in to these demands only makes picky eating worse. As soon as your child starts eating adult food, be sure to offer them an array of things on the dinner table. Food contests are sometimes the most frustrating issue parents have to face, but if you offer them a selection of healthy foods (let’s say, for example, lean meat, a salad, some raw veggies and a glass of milk) they may choose one or two and if they leave the others for now, it’s not a big deal. And be sure to keep trying – what a toddler eats one month might be completely different the next, so keep putting the olives out beside the cheese plate and fruit bowl, and sooner or later they will get curious and sample something.

5. Limit screen time.

This is a controversial topic in today’s digital world, but one thing experts agree on is this: early and heavy exposure to screens is not good for a baby or toddler’s eyesight, attention span or intellectual development. Postpone their engagement with screens as long as possible, even the tablet or phone. Give them books even before they can read, and engage in other creative endeavors like drawing, and monitor them closely once you do allow time for watching programs or playing a simple game on your phone. It is inevitable and even beneficial that they engage with screens as they get older, but as toddlers, the less time they spend with screens the better.

6. Don’t think you can control every tantrum.

You can’t – it’s that simple. Lots of parents become embarrassed or feel judged if their toddler has a “meltdown” when other people are around, particularly if they are in a large public place like a shopping center. Remember: your toddler is who matters, not the people standing around staring, so deal with it quickly and decisively. Usually, it’s a matter of fatigue and overstimulation in a busy environment, so taking them somewhere quiet often makes the tantrum dissipate.

7. Don’t jump in to help them at the first sign of a struggle.

Naturally, a parent’s inclination is to step in and help when they see their toddler having a hard time with a task, or struggling to complete something, like a jigsaw puzzle. And yet, it’s far wiser to let them work through the challenge by themselves. Doing it for them sends the message that handling tasks by themselves isn’t a good thing – which it is! If they genuinely can’t figure something out after a little time has elapsed and they ask for help, of course it’s fine to offer guidance. But rather than solving the problem or doing the task for them, why not offer a clue about the answer, and let them come to the solution on their own? That fosters independence as well as mental acuity.

The toddler years are rewarding and joyful for all parents.  These are the years that are filled with firsts – first steps, first words, and so many first time experiences. But they are also the years when your toddler begins to discover who they are, test their boundaries (and your patience!) and learn lessons that will serve them for a lifetime. Avoiding these common pitfalls is one way to ensure you’re able to enjoy witnessing your former baby blossom into a happy toddler, who is taking their initial, tentative steps on the way to adulthood.