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busy toddlers

The Growing Years

Month 27-28

Reviews by Kate Yerxa, assistant Extension professor.

Special thanks to Michelle Doty, home visitor, Parents Are Teachers, Too, Penquis; Laurie Dunton, home visitor, Parents are Teachers, Too; and Sue Hill, home visitor, Parents are Teachers, Too, Penquis, for their reviews.

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Toddler years are busy years

No one needs to tell you that the toddler years are busy years. They are busy for your toddler, who is into everything, and busy for you, because you have to chase, protect, and teach him.

With all this activity and stress, it may be hard to remember that these first three years are probably the most important time in your child’s life. You have the chance now to help him become a healthy, responsible, loving, and accomplished person.

Try to enjoy these busy, important years. Be good to yourself. Take time for yourself when you can and share child care with others when you need a break. Enjoy your child’s growth and celebrate his new skills with him. Reward yourself, too, for your successes. And don’t be hard on yourself for mistakes. All parents make them.

Believe it or not, when these busy toddler years pass, you will probably look back on this time with pleasure. For now, do all that you can to make the most of these important years.

Re-check safety

Give your house a safety re-check today. Children can get into new dangers as they develop new abilities. Cover electrical outlets. Make sure that everything dangerous is locked up or out of reach.

As toddlers learn to climb, they can open cabinets that they could not reach before. They can also climb up bookshelves and tip them over. You can make bookshelves safer by attaching them to the wall.

Each home is different. You can make your load easier if you stay alert to changing safety risks, and take action as soon as you find new ones.

Turn win-lose into win-win

Your toddler’s growing independence may be a source of stress in your life right now. Sometimes, you may feel as if you’re in a war with your child, trying to win every battle. Some battles end so that you both lose. When you win, your child might fight back even harder. When she wins, you might feel angry, defeated, or guilty.

One way to reduce this stress is to handle these battles so that both of you win at least a little.

Maybe you can’t talk about compromise with a determined 2-year-old. But you can figure out how to end up with no one feeling like a loser. Remember that you are the adult. If you refuse to get caught up in a battle, then your child can’t lose and neither can you.

For example, your daughter tells you that she is ready for you to read her a story, but you want her to help pick up her toys. Maybe she can pick out the story before cleanup, and you can read it when the room is picked up. Or maybe you can read half of the story before cleanup, and read the rest after. You’ll both feel better when it’s not a power struggle.

When there’s never enough time

Stress can be caused by feeling as if you have too much to do and not enough time. You may feel like you can’t even get all your housework done, much less play with your child or take time for yourself.

Managing your time better can help prevent this kind of stress. Here are some ideas:

  • Make a list of everything that you want to get done for one day, or one week. Decide which things are most important, and which ones can wait or don’t have to be done at all. Be reasonable about the number of things that you can do in the time you have.
  • Write out a schedule for your day, so that you can aim for a time to finish each task. Think about how you’ll do the task in the time you’ve planned.
  • Group chores together if they need similar tools. Group all the chores that involve going out or the ones for which you need someone else to care for your child.
  • Figure out how much you really can do in the time you have.
  • Have your child help you with chores like folding the laundry, matching socks, dusting, watering plants, and putting away toys.

Don’t be afraid to say no to people who want more of your time than you can give. Make sure that you build in time for the most important people in your life, especially you!

Toddlers may want what they’ve seen on TV

Has this happened to you yet? You are pushing your grocery cart down the aisle at a store. Your toddler sees a certain brand of breakfast cereal. He begins calling out the name of the cereal. He wants you to buy it. You are amazed—you’ve never bought that kind of cereal, and he’s never eaten it. How did he find out about it?

Probably from TV.1 Toddlers don’t seem to pay much attention to television, but are often aware of what is happening on the screen. Commercials are very appealing because of the action and noise. One food advertised often during children’s programs is cereal. Some of these cereals are nutritious, but others are not. In fact, some of these cereals have more sugar than three chocolate chip cookies or as much as a donut. They are more like special treats than breakfast food.

How can you tell whether a cereal is high in sugar? Look for the ingredient label on the box. Ingredients are listed in order of quantity, starting with the most. If the first or second ingredient listed is sugar, * sucrose, or corn syrup, there is a lot of sugar in the cereal. You will want to choose another cereal that is lower in sugar.

What do you tell your child if you decide not to buy the cereal? Say: “This is not an everyday food. We want to buy a cereal that will help you grow healthy and strong.” Check labels on other cereals, and let him choose from the cereals that are lower in sugar.

If your child is unhappy because you aren’t going to buy the cereal that he wants, move away from the cereal display. Go on and do the rest of your shopping. You can spend time reading cereal labels when you are shopping alone.

*Other names for sugar include corn sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, molasses, and honey.

My child doesn’t want to nap. Is a nap necessary?

At this age, many children take one 2- to 3-hour nap a day, instead of several shorter naps.

Each child is different. Some 2-year-olds are nearly ready to give up napping entirely. Others sleep deeply for several hours every afternoon.

Unless he seems irritable and overtired, don’t insist that your youngster sleep during nap time. Do be sure to have some quiet resting time every day, though. Your child can look at books or play quietly in his room. Set a routine, and stick with it. Your busy toddler really needs this quiet break—and so do you.

My 2 1/2-year-old won’t go to sleep when I put her to bed. What can I do?

Just remember that bedtime is not always sleep time.

Young children need regular bedtimes, and special bedtime routines—like brushing their teeth, stories, and hugs. Parents need to have some time alone, so they need regular bedtimes for their children. It’s also good for you to have a regular schedule so that you know what to expect!

When your child knows what to expect at bedtime, routines become familiar and comforting. Don’t worry if she does not always go to sleep as soon as she goes to bed. When she isn’t sleepy, let her have some quiet time in bed looking at books until sleep comes.

Homemade toys that teach

Play place

Isn’t it nice to see your child’s imagination grow? When your toddler pretends, she can be as powerful, as big, and as important as she wants to be, and it’s a good feeling for both of you. She can practice being like members of her family, a king, a teacher, or a police officer.

Imagination and pretend play are important. They help your child cope with her world and prepare for her future. At this age, your child learns about others’ points of view—their feelings and thoughts—by acting them out. You can encourage her imagination and be a part of her pretend play by making a carton play place with her.


  • Large cardboard box from grocery or appliance stores—Your carton should be big enough for your toddler to crawl inside of. Make sure that the box is free of staples.
  • Utility knife—Use this to cut the cardboard box. Keep your toddler away from the knife. Put it away as soon as you’ve finished.
  • Crayons, colored paper, streamers, and so forth for decorating the play place

Making a play place

The box can be whatever your toddler wants it to be—a house, spaceship, boat, cave, fort, puppet theater, or all of these. Place the box so that the open end is on the floor. Cut windows, portholes, or whatever your toddler wants on the sides and back of the box. Let your toddler decorate the box however she wants. She may want you to write her name on the box or put a message or sign on it.

Games for growing

Sorting game

Help your child learn how things can be alike or different.

How to play

Find three or four each of about four different items. For example, you could have four playing cards, four ribbons, four spoons, and four leaves. Mix these up, and put them in a pile or a bowl.

Ask your child to sort them into piles of things that are alike. If she wants you to, you can take a turn at sorting, too. To make the game harder, you can make all the things almost alike, such as four small paper squares, four medium-sized paper squares, and four large paper squares.

First numbers

Help your child learn the difference between one and two.

How to play

Show your child groups of things that have one, two, three, or more in them.

You can use small toys, books, paper cups, flowers, milk caps, or other small, safe things for this game. Encourage her to pick out the group that is one. Put two objects together and ask her how many. Take one object out and ask her how many. Then let her ask you.

Remember: play this and any game only as long as it is fun for both you and your child. Encourage your child’s efforts, and don’t criticize failures.

Watch out for toxic plants!

Many kinds of plants are poisonous if eaten. Know the plants in and around your home and neighborhood. Your local Poison Control Center has information on toxic plants in your area. You can also contact your University of Maine Cooperative Extension county office for more information.

It may confuse a young child to eat food from the garden, when nearby plants such as nightshade berries or mistletoe cannot be eaten. Don’t let him eat leaves or berries while playing or helping you garden. And watch for mushrooms, which pop up quickly. Explain which plants are for eating and which are for looking.

If your child eats any part of a toxic plant or other poison:

  • Call Poison Control at (800)222-1222. You can find the number inside the front cover of the phone book, or even better, program it in your phone.
  • If your child needs emergency treatment, bring a part of the plant or substance your child ate with you.

See bulletin #2351, Poisonous Plants in and Around the Home. This 2-page bulletin provides tips to prevent poisoning from plants.

Brushing teeth

Keep brushing your child’s teeth with a tiny, pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste.

Use only small amounts of toothpaste, because young children tend to swallow it. If your water supply is not fluoridated, your child’s doctor may recommend fluoride drops to help strengthen teeth.

Schedule a dental checkup for your child every six months or as often as your dentist advises.

Choosing books for toddlers2

When you select books for toddlers, look for these features:

  • Familiar subject—The book should have things that your child knows about.
  • Simple plot—Sometimes you don’t need a plot—some books have only pictures with labels on them. These can be fun for toddlers. Your child will enjoy turning the pages with you, seeing the pictures, and talking to you about them.
  • Clear, simple words—There should be just a few words on each page. Toddlers like books with repeated phrases and words that are fun to say.
  • Large, clear, brightly colored pictures—Toddlers often like drawings better than photographs, because they are easier to understand.

See whether you can find sturdy cardboard books (“board” books). You can buy these at small cost or borrow them from your library. Your child can turn the pages of these books more easily than with paper books, and the pages will not tear.

Discipline and self-care with time-out

Time-out means putting your toddler in a safe place away from you for a few minutes. You can also use it as a time-out for yourself.3 The purpose of time-out is to get away from the situation that is causing stress or anger, to reflect, and to come back to the room after a break. It can give you and your toddler a chance to calm down if you both need it.

For your child, save time-out for one or two behaviors that need to stop when they happen. Examples of this could be throwing toys or biting. Time-out should not be a surprise to your child. When you use time-out, be sure to let your toddler know that you love her and that you do not want to hurt her.

Here are some important things to do to keep time-out as a guidance and discipline method, not a punishment:

  • Tell your child about time-out. Tell her ahead of time—what time-out is and how and when you will use it. Tell her how long time-out will be, and tell her that you will come to get her when the time is up. Keep your promise.
  • Choose the time-out place carefully. Use a safe, non-scary place like a bedroom, a chair, the bottom stair, or part of a room. Never use a closet or place that is dark, dangerous, or frightening to your child.
  • Tell your toddler why you are using time-out and how long it will last. Before time-out, explain to her why she is being disciplined.
  • Keep time-out short. For a toddler, time-out should last no more than 3 minutes. You can use a timer, and be sure to follow your time limits. When the time is up, go in to her, give her a hug, and invite her to be with you. Don’t remind her why she went into time-out. When it’s over, let it be over.
  • Keep calm. When you use time-out or any kind of discipline, stay calm. Explain clearly to your child why you are limiting her. Follow through firmly, but also show that you love and care for her.

Think about how you act with your child, and figure out whether what you do makes a situation worse sometimes. It’s not your fault when your child has a tantrum, but there may be ways to reduce the tantrums by changing how you act or what you expect.4 The same goes for your need to use time-outs! There may be things you can do to reduce the behaviors that lead to time-outs for your child.

Home is a place to learn!

You don’t need to go to school to begin learning. And you don’t need a chalkboard and rows of desks in your living room to make your home a learning place. Everything that you do at home, with your family, and in your daily activities is a learning opportunity for your toddler. You probably already know that you’ve been teaching her since birth.

You might say, “But I don’t know how to teach.” You don’t need a teaching degree. You just need to follow these tips:

  • Remember that a child’s first and most important teachers are his parents.
  • Be alert to the new situations that your child faces each day.
  • Create short, simple learning lessons many times during the day.
  • Keep learning fun! You can teach by playing games and talking with your child in a fun way.

Here are some ways to teach every day:

  • Colors—As you set the table, talk about the red dishes or the blue tablecloth. As you sort the clothes, talk about the blue jeans or the white shirt.
  • Shapes—Talk about shapes of toys or furnishings in your home—the round mirror or the square table.
  • Same and different—Help your child sort spoons and forks in the drawer. But knives are not safe for her yet.
  • Words—Teach about language and books by showing pictures and reading short stories to your child again and again. Talk with her about the story.

Your child’s first school is in your home. The learning lessons you offer will prepare her to learn even more when she starts preschool and kindergarten.

Children who have lots of books and opportunities to learn at home enjoy learning and are often more “school-ready” than children who do not.5

Toddlers show their feelings

Toddlers naturally show you and tell you that they love you. Welcome and enjoy these feelings. You’ll want to show your feelings to your toddler, too, with words and hugs.

But just as naturally, toddlers sometimes also talk and act as if they dislike you. Parents understandably find these angry words and actions hard to take. It is much nicer to hear “I love you” than “I hate you.” But both kinds of feelings are common with toddlers and are part of growing up. You can help your toddler find different words to express his feelings.

Try to handle these actions and feelings with understanding, instead of arguing or punishing. Your toddler’s angry words and actions do not mean that you have been a bad parent or that he really dislikes you. Understand that his anger is temporary and normal.

Show your child that you care for him even when he is angry and that angry feelings are okay. Do not let him turn his feelings into angry actions such as biting, kicking, or hitting. And don’t give in to unreasonable demands just to prevent angry outbursts. You might try to talk to him and find out more about why he is feeling angry.

Be patient. The good and loving relationship you have with your toddler will keep these angry times short.

Change can be hard

Some children adjust easily to changes in routine or plans. Others adapt more slowly.

Parents may expect children to have difficulty with big changes, like moving to a new house or getting a new baby brother. But even small changes, like transitions (shifts from one activity to another) or changes in plans, can be challenging.

For example, you ask your toddler to come to dinner now. She says, “no!” This really means, “I can’t change activities that quickly.” She needs time to switch from playing to eating.

Here are some ways to help your child handle change:

  • Tell your child about changes ahead of time, but not more than ten minutes ahead.
  • Provide transition time between activities. For example, give your child 5 and 1-minute warnings before she needs to stop playing and have dinner. A timer works great!
  • Stick to daily routines. This helps your child know what to expect, so she feels more secure.
  • Offer choices. Your child will feel more in control, which reduces the number of changes she must adjust to.
  • Set clear, consistent limits. Slow-adapting children test limits often to see if they’ve changed.
  • Make sure she gets enough sleep. A tired child has a harder time handling changes.

Preparing your toddler for special occasions

Parents are often eager to have their children join in the fun of celebrations. For your young child, these occasions may be happy, or they may be scary and upsetting. He may not want to talk to a strange Santa Claus or shake hands with a clown. He will probably not laugh if a neighbor child in a witch costume swoops down upon him. He might not enjoy meeting new relatives at a family gathering, either.

You can’t protect your child from every new situation. But here are a few things that you can do to prepare him for special occasions:

  • Talk to your child about where you are planning to go. Tell him what he will see and do there.
  • Practice ahead of time, if you can. Show your toddler pictures of Santa before visiting him. Let him play with masks before Halloween. Before the family party, show him photos and tell him about the relatives he may see.
  • Watch with your child from a safe distance before entering a gathering. Let him watch other children meeting Santa or a clown, and reassure him with hugs and words.

When the celebration begins, let your child take his time getting acquainted, and let him decide whether to participate. Don’t force him to get close to unfamiliar or scary people or characters.

Playing make-believe

Imagination is a wonderful thing. We can help our children develop it. Boys and girls love to pretend that they are someone important and powerful, like a superhero, doctor, teacher, or parent. Sometimes you’ll see children playing “family” with one another. Your toddler might set up her stuffed animals and pretend that they are her children.

Playing make-believe like this is a good, healthy part of growing up. It helps boys and girls practice for the future. It gives them pleasure and comfort.

Dr. Doloris Bergen from Miami University of Ohio researches and writes about children and pretend play.6 She notes that pretend play may be one of the most important skills for children to be successful in school when they get older. Play helps develop problem-solving. It also helps children develop language, learn to plan, and understand how other people feel and act.

Join your child in fantasy play and encourage her to play pretend with siblings and friends. When you play with your child, follow her lead, and make sure to ask questions like, “Do you want me to be the daddy?” By playing it her way, you will encourage her creativity and make this important play even more special for your toddler.

Left- or right-handed?

Most children change hand preference several times before settling down to a left or right hand preference. Some continue to have equal skill in both hands throughout their lives.

Hand preference is already present in the child’s brain at birth. Most children have their hand preference by the age of 3. In the U. S., 10 to 15 percent of the child population is left-handed.

Research references

1Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Food Marketing to Children.” Nutrition Action Healthletter. (accessed 18 August 2008).

2Jalongo, M., 2004.Young Children and Picture Books. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

3Varni, J. W. and D. G. Corwin, 1991. Time-Out for Toddlers. NY: Berkeley Publishing Group.

4Grosshans, B. A., 2008. Beyond Time Out. NY: Sterling Publishing.

5Magdalena, J., 2007. “The school entry gap: socioeconomic, family, and health factors associated with children’s school readiness to learn.” Early Education and Development 18, no. 3: 375–403.

6Bergen, D., 2002. “The role of pretend play in children’s cognitive development.” Early Childhood Research and Practice 4, no. 1. (accessed August 2008).

Babysitter instructions (Download a PDF copy to print and fill out for your babysitter)

Our names:
Our home address and phone number:
Our cell phone number:
Our location and phone number:
When we expect to be back:
Neighbor’s name:
Neighbor’s address and phone number:
Baby’s doctor and phone number:
Emergency response number: 9-1-1
Local police station number:
Local fire station number:
Poison Control Center: (800) 222-1222
Baby’s mealtime(s):
Baby’s naptime or bedtime:
Baby’s allergies:
Baby’s medication:
Special instructions:

He or she, him or her? This series gives equal time to both sexes. That’s why we take turns referring to children as “he” or “she.” Keep in mind that we are talking about all children when we use “he” or “she.”

Months 1 through 36 of The Growing Years are reproduced and adapted with permission from the Parenting the First Year series published by University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension. All rights reserved.

To contact us about The Growing Years, e-mail

© 2011

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