While it’s natural to feel like your baby will be dependent on you forever (especially during those middle-of-the-night feedings that never seem to end!) the roots of self-sufficiency actually begin in infancy. If you haven’t already, today’s 24/7 togetherness is a great time to begin fostering your child’s independence – in small and age-appropriate ways. Mahogany Long (child development specialist and coach with CCRI’s Early Learning Team) has some suggestions to get you started.
Infant/Toddler Stage (birth-2 years)
Self-soothing can be a challenge for infants and toddlers (and parents, too). To help smooth naptime and bedtime, develop a routine for you and your baby.
- Meet the baby’s needs. Make sure the baby is fed, burped, and freshly diapered.
- Prepare the environment. Make the baby’s surroundings conducive to sleep – a calm, relaxing space.
Infants begin developing gross motor skills by sitting up, scooting, crawling, and eventually walking. With this mobility comes excitement and frustration as parents learn to set limits – and toddlers learn to test them. “Baby-proofing” your home is an important way to let your child explore the environment safely so you can keep the focus on fostering independence and celebrating each new milestone.
Pro Tip: Praise your child’s effort and encourage continued practice. Let your infant/toddler take the lead; if learning a certain skill becomes frustrating for your child, it’s OK to take a break and try again the next day.
Preschool Stage (3-5 years)
I can do it by myself! Let me try! This familiar refrain during the preschool years can increase your anxiety along with your child’s insistence. To support your child’s growing independence and self-confidence, start with small tasks like those in a typical preschool classroom. Encourage your child to:
- Pick out her clothes
- Set the table
- Wipe the table after dinner
- Brush his teeth (with guidance)
- Feed the pets
- Put away his toys
- Prepare her own snack
- Pour his own drink
Pro Tip: Give step-by-step instructions. One step turns into two steps, and soon your child can complete the task without your guidance. As your child’s proficiency grows, so can the complexity of tasks. As your child establishes a routine, you can add more steps.
School -Agers (6 years and up)
It can be difficult to let your child work through challenges before offering help – but the best way to help school-agers is giving them the time and space to solve their own problems. Try modeling how to think through a problem by talking about it. When children feel stuck or can’t see a way forward, motivate them to keep trying. Once they have a workable solution, praise their effort and be specific. For example: "I like the way you took turns sharing the toy with your sister."
The more you practice fostering your child’s independence, the more natural it will become. Remember to start small, practice together, provide encouragement, give space to work through challenges, and CELEBRATE all victories – big and small.