One Expert Tells All

When Is My Child Ready to Get Dressed by Himself?

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Long before struggles over clothes choice begin, kids show an interest in dressing themselves. Here’s how to make it work, from bottom to top!

Getting dressed is a complicated process: jammies come off and clothes go on—all while getting little arms and legs in and out of the right openings. Here, Brittany N. Barber Garcia, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, shares what you need to know to help your child get started.


My two-year-old couldn’t care less about dressing himself. Is he too young to show an interest?

A good way to tell if a child is ready to dress himself is if he is starting to undress himself. That always comes first. That’s because it’s a lot easier to take clothes off—it requires much less skill and coordination to remove an article of clothing than it does to put it on. So, it’s a good sign if he takes his socks off at naptime. Another clue to watch for: He no longer needs cues or reminders about what to do with his body. You don’t have to put his arm through his sleeve or his leg in his pants—he’s starting to do this himself.

So at what age can kids take care of the small stuff, such as putting on stretchy pants or slipping into socks or sneakers?

Kids start to show an interest in getting dressed around age 2 ½ to 3, and while they do need your help with most tasks, there are skills they can practice along the way. For instance, if you gently slip a sock over your toddler’s heel, you can let her slide the rest of the sock up over her ankle. Or you can help her slip into a T-shirt but show (or help) her pull the shirt down over her tummy. It’s not until age 3 or 4 that kids’ motor skills sufficiently develop and they can start to put on some simpler items of clothing, such as an elastic-waist skirt or a T-shirt. Kids need adequate gross and fine motor skills to be able to dress themselves. Gross motor skills involve large muscles, such as those required to balance removing shoes and pants. Fine motor skills involve smaller muscle movements, such as those needed to manipulate buttons and zippers. Importantly, getting dressed requires the cognitive skills to understand the sequence of knowing when to put on which clothes and understanding when to wear certain types of clothes and how to dress appropriately for the weather. At around age 3 to 3 ½, some children can pull on shirts with little assistance, put on shoes (without fasteners), and slip into mittens. By age 4 many can manage large buttons and zippers.

So what’s the best way to start skill building?

Much like everything else we teach our kids, we need to let them know what our expectations are and we need to make sure they have access to the things they need to meet those expectations.It’s unreasonable to expect a child to put on his shoes when he doesn’t know where they are or which foot they go on. So, you can say, “OK, we’re going to put your shoes on now.” Or you may want to introduce an additional step—for instance, ask him to get his shoes from the closet and bring them to you. Set your child up for success by breaking down tasks and practicing. Modeling the process and talking him through it is important. Other good tips: Look for designs where the item’s front and back are easily identifiable. Select clothes the night before (and do it together). Leave ample time for dressing. Sit down for certain tasks (to stay balanced).

Encouraging my child to get dressed is such a battle. Why the resistance—and what can I do about it?

Kids resist getting dressed for many reasons. They can’t reach their clothes, they don’t know what to wear, they feel overwhelmed, or they may be trying to assert their independence. Be patient. Provide praise and encouragement. You may get less resistance and better results if you tell your child exactly what you want her to do and then praise her effort, as opposed to telling her what you don’t want her to do and getting her upset or frustrated.

What should I do if my child wants to wear mismatched clothes or a favorite item that’s out of season?

Just like adults, children take great pride in picking out what to wear and choosing what they want to have on their bodies based on what feels comfortable and how they want to express themselves that day. If we try to thwart that too often by saying, “No, you can’t wear that,” it can be very upsetting and frustrating to them. Typically, they’re just trying to assert their independence. Try to find a way to let your kid wear what she wants or a way to add or eliminate something. So if your child wants to wear a dress when it’s cold, add a pair of leggings. Putting too much of a kibosh on your child’s style choices may also dampen his spirits, or his self-esteem could take a bit of a hit, especially if he put a shirt on in a certain way because he thought it was fun or he wanted to express himself in that way. Or maybe, he was really struggling and wanted to put it on the right way but was physically unable to do so. To find out if that’s the case, ask him, “Hey, I notice that your shirt is on backward. Is that the way you wanted it to be?” Asking some questions as opposed to telling him how you see it, is a great way to get to know what your child is thinking and to encourage individual expression.