By: Deborah Bohn
There's no doubt about it: when you're young you have to be flexible, willing to adapt in this constantly changing world. Doing things the same old way each day is for old folks . . . you know, like four-year-olds. That's right. By the time a child is turns four, he'll have most likely experienced such monumental lifestyle changes as giving up his beloved pacifier and moving from the cozy comfort of his crib to the vast expanse of a big kid bed. Many kids will have left home already and gone off to preschool, while others will graduate from a hulking car seat to a sleek little booster.
As young and innocent as they are, toddlers are masters of adaptation. Can you imagine starting a new job, changing cars, having your bed removed, and doing it all while attempting to quit a calming habit like snacking, drinking coffee, or chewing gum? When you put things in perspective, it's clear that the sheer number of toddler transitions can be overwhelming for little ones and parents alike. The good news is that kids jump most of the hurdles with relative ease, but it can take a combination of empathy and ingenuity on their parents' part to complete the metamorphosis from baby to little kid.
Bye Bye Bottle
The first big transition is usually the one from bottle to cup. Pediatrician Jon Betts, MD, of Old Harding Pediatrics in Nashville, Tennessee, recommends that parents phase out the bottle at the one-year mark. "Moving from a bottle to a sippy cup is important because it reduces the incidence of cavities caused by bottle use particularly in the crib, and it also helps promote good dental alignment," he says.
A good way to get your child used to a sippy cup is to let him play with one filled with water from the time he can hold onto it—between ages four and six months. He'll probably drop it, bang it on the floor, and use it as a toy, but eventually he'll put the right part in his mouth and take a sip. (A few demonstrations with exaggerated "Yum, Yum!" reactions from Mom help out here.) From then on, a cup filled with water should be his constant companion and available whenever he's seated for a meal.
Eventually, you'll start substituting the cup for his bottle at feeding times. If you replace the bottle with a cup for a new feeding time each week, you can complete the transition in just over a month. Many experts recommend trying the cup at your child's least favorite feeding, so he's not frustrated or hungry if things don't go smoothly the first few times. I found the opposite to be true and introduced the sippy for the first feeding of the morning, when my kids were really hungry and didn't care if I was offering them a rusty bucket to drink from as long as they got eight ounces of warm milk from somewhere.
That cozy nighttime bottle is often the hardest for both Mom and her baby to let go, but you can still snuggle your little one and even hold the cup for him for the same effect. If your child violently opposes the cup and longs for the sucking pleasure of a bottle, try giving him one with water in it. Put the yummy, satisfying milk in the cup and offer both of them for a few days to see if he makes the switch on his own terms.
True Life Tale: My little brother was the fourth and last child in the family. He drank from a bottle until he was nearly in Kindergarten! The kid would come home from soccer practice and plop down on the couch guzzling a baby bottle of orange juice. That stubborn toddler is now a handsome, successful doctor with no ill effects from my parents' indulgence of their youngest one.
Asking some children to give up a pacifier is like getting an adult to quit smoking. Oral gratification is an instinctive human relaxation behavior that calms everyone from thumb sucking fetuses to gum smacking colleagues. Smoking, pencil chewing, and snacking are all iterations of this self-soothing technique. It's a tough behavior to change, but pacifiers can be a costly habit in the form of orthodontic bills later on.
According to the American Dental Association, "Children who continue to use pacifiers past the age of three show a higher prevalence of altered dental arches and abnormal lip and cheek mobility compared to those who never used a pacifier." After 18 years of pediatric dentistry, Dr. David Snodgrass, DDS, recommends ditching the binky between 14 and 16 months of age, "We've found that the best way to get the children off the pacifier is to simply place every one of them in the house in a plastic freezer bag, shake them in front of the child, and tell them they are going to take them to their pediatrician (or Dr. Snodgrass) so he can give them to the little babies at the hospital. The next time the child asks for them, blame it on me."
Other parents recommend trading the old pacifiers in for a brand new toy or throwing a Pacifier Party complete with cupcakes and streamers to say goodbye to their dear old friends. Another way is to gradually cut back on the nipple size by snipping a little off each week. This worked like a charm for my kids because they still got to hold their precious pacifiers—nothing was taken from them—they just couldn't seem to keep them in their mouths for more than a minute because the suction breaks when your snip off the tip. It's almost the same as someone tuning your television to only broadcast the weather channel: you still have a TV and it still works, but it's so boring that you quit watching it after a few minutes!
Big Kid Beds
If ditching the pacifier is traumatic for kids, taking down the crib is equally distressing for parents. Something about a crib just says "sweet little baby," but a bed screams "BIG KID!" I've seen four-year-olds who still sleep in cribs because their parents claim that, "She's just not ready yet." Kind of makes you wonder exactly who's not ready!
While there's no perfect time to shop for new furniture, situations like the imminent arrival of a little sibling or a child who's learned to climb out of her crib are good reasons to make the switch. Some folks advocate setting up the new bed in the child's room along with the crib and letting Junior try taking his naps on the bed for a week to get used to the idea before going all the way. When I was a few weeks from my due date with Baby #2, we tried the cold turkey method of talking up the big girl bed for a week, buying a butterfly comforter with fancy new sheets, and generally making the whole project sound as exciting as Christmas morning at Disneyland. Our 23-month-old daughter jumped in her new bed on the first night and never looked back.
No matter how you make the transition, make sure you put guard rails on any open sides and a waterproof mattress pad under the sheets. If you're concerned about your little wanderer getting up at night and roaming the house, put a safety gate across her doorway or a childproof door handle cover on the inside of her bedroom door (so you can get in, but she can't get out).
Betts advises, "If kids climb the gate and refuse to stay in their room, I suggest that a parent sit on the floor outside the gate to get the child to sleep and then move them to their bed after they are asleep. After several nights of this, most kids will begin to settle themselves down without their parents present."
True Life Tale: Our daughter went missing on the second day in her new bed. Although we put a lock inside her room, she was nowhere to be found in the morning. We frantically searched the house, imagining her scared, hurt, and alone. She turned up fast asleep under a pile of stuffed animals in the corner of her room!
Heaving the Highchair
As is the case with many toddler transitions, your child will often send out clear signals that he's ready for a change. Dr. Betts agrees, "I think the transition from a highchair to a booster seat or regular chair depends less on age and more on a child's size and when he or she can sit at the table without constantly wanting to get up and down."
If your daughter successfully behaves in a booster seat at a restaurant or friend's house when no highchair is available or starts refusing her highchair and clamoring up into a chair like Mom and Dad, give it a try. Some clever kids figure out how to undo their straps or kick the tray off with their feet—a sure sign that they're ready to graduate to the big table.
If your child is large for his age, stuffing him into that little seat locked down with a big tray is tantamount to torture after his second birthday, so a change is in order! Although many children will test their new freedom by leaving the table and roaming the room during meals, resist the temptation to strap them down again, especially since that idea will most likely be met with resistance by your budding big kid. Instead, calmly return your freedom fighter to her chair and say, "If you want to eat, stay in your seat." Sacrificing food in favor of exploring the kitchen will become boring after a few nights, and her hunger will most likely lead her back to her chair to eat like the grown-ups.
True Life Tale: We've never used a highchair. Much like a toddler bed, which is just a crib with smaller rails—kind of redundant—highchairs are basically bulky, difficult-to-wash booster seats on stilts. Our babies went straight into a $20, portable, lightweight booster seat with a tray that was removed at about 18 months when we just pushed them up to the table.
The Fork Goes on the Left. . . . Or on the Floor
While it's usually a joyous day when the baby starts picking up her own food and freeing up Mom and Dad to enjoy their own meals, don't get used to it just yet because things are about to get crazy again. Dr. Jon Betts, MD, of Old Harding Pediatrics in Nashville, Tennessee, says that, "Children usually show interest in using a fork or spoon by 12 to 15 months of age, but do not fully grasp the skill until 18 months or so."
Signs of readiness include your child attempting to grab the spoon when you bring it to her mouth or asking for her own utensils. Begin by investing in a few sets of toddler silverware which tend to feature short rubber handles for easy gripping, spoons with a nice deep dish for secure scooping, and forks with rounded tines to prevent accidental eye pokes. Your little one might want to mimic your adult eating behavior right away but could also get bored after a few bites or frustrated that she can't get as much food as quickly as she can with her hands. Don't worry if she abandons the utensils for a time; just keep encouraging her to use them when she forgets and help scoop or spear food for her to lift to her mouth for difficult dishes like pasta or rice. By the time she's around age three, you can start insisting that she use a fork full-time, although your help may still come in handy every now and then.
True Life Tale: My 18-month-old had us convinced that she lacked the manual dexterity to use a fork for most meals. She'd vainly attempt to jab meat, only to have it shoot across the plate, vegetables would fall away before reaching her mouth. We helped feed her in our delusional fear that she'd starve without us . . . until we saw her in action at a birthday party. That little faker was able to use her fork to cut bite-sized pieces from her slice of cake and get every last crumb to her mouth . . . ice cream, too! From then on we knew that her dinnertime helplessness was her way of retaining her babyhood and getting one-on-one attention from Mom and Dad, which we happily supplied in other ways . . . after she ate her dinner!
Is Toothpaste a Food Group?
Before your baby sprouts his first tooth you should begin a tooth-brushing routine by wiping his gums with a wet washcloth each day, and by the time he's two, twice-a-day brushing should be the norm. Although toddlers are not the most efficient cleaners, allow your child to put the toothpaste on the brush and do his best at brushing, then spit (or swallow) and rinse his toothbrush. Giving him the responsibility of being a big person will make this activity less of a chore and may make him more willing to open up for you to get a few swipes in at the end. Don't let your little one use whitening toothpastes, as they could sting his mouth, and don't let him swallow more than a tiny drop of children's toothpaste since too much fluoride can cause white spots on kid's teeth, a condition known as fluorosis.
True Life Tale: My kids think brushing their teeth is so much fun that they'll spend 10 minutes doing it. (Getting the flip-top off the toothpaste tube takes up a nice chunk of that time.) That gives me time to put on make-up and dry my hair in the mirror right behind them as I supervise their valiant attempts at dental hygiene.
Three Cheers for Booster Seats!
Booster seats are fabulous. Not only are they so cheap (between $15 and $50) that you can have an extra for Dad's car, plus another spare for carpooling and play dates, but they're also so light and portable that swapping them from car to car is a breeze. Add in the fact that boosters don't come with complicated installation instructions or require a fireman with a protractor and level to put in correctly, and that your child can actually get into the car and buckle herself into the booster with no help from you, and you can see why it's a day of celebration when your child is ready to move into one.
While booster seat laws vary by state, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends that a booster seat "is typically recommended for children who are 4 to 8 years old or who weigh at least 40 pounds and are up to 4 feet 9 inches tall." Although most children fall under these guidelines, larger kids who hit the 40-pound threshold before age four may move into a booster seat at an earlier age, but if a child weighs 40 pounds and can still comfortably fit into his five-point-restraint car seat, keep him there until the straps don't fit anymore. And just because a child turns four doesn't automatically mean a switch to a booster: Children must reach the state's mandated weight level to say goodbye to their car seats. A petite six-year-old who doesn't weigh enough must remain in her car seat until she's physically big enough to move up. If you're not sure of the law in your state, call your local police department or highway patrol office for the facts. Remember that children in a booster must use a shoulder belt—never just a lap belt—and all children should ride in the back seat until age 13.
True Life Tale: Not only are boosters seats cheap and easy to install, they're a cinch to clean too. Unlike complicated car seats with straps, latches, harnesses, and various hard-to-clean doohickies, boosters usually just have a simple seat cover that you can toss in the washing machine whenever it starts looking grungy.
There's something bittersweet about sending your child off to preschool or even kindergarten for the first time: you're thrilled about the prospect of a few hours of adult time, but you miss your little buddy to pieces and can't imagine that your sweet baby is actually ready for backpacks, lunch boxes, and group naptime. Whether your child begins daycare at six weeks or preschool at three years, the key to a smooth transition is consistency.
Tina Locke, co-owner of Step Forward Day School, an award-winning preschool in Franklin, Tennessee, says, "Children learn that whether they cry for a minute or jump right in and play, Mom goes home . . . and comes back a few hours later."
Locke says that parents' attitudes are the number one influence on a child's attitude about school. "Instead of saying, 'You are so lucky because you get to go to school, learn all sorts of new things, make friends and play with toys,' you've got some parents who actually bribe children with toys if they go to school!" Locke says. She adds that if parents give their kids a quick kiss and wave goodbye at the door (rather than lingering around the classroom and making it difficult for teachers to bond with the children), the majority of preschoolers will happily adjust after just a few visits. "I've never had a child have a problem after three weeks," Locke says. The upshot here is that with a consistent and brief goodbye routine and a sunny attitude, your little one will be singing new songs, talking about new friends, and bringing home stacks of fantastic noodle artwork in no time!
True Life Tale: Babysitters and preschool teachers will all tell you that the second time is the hardest. The first day of school is such of whirlwind of new people and activities that kids don't really have time to miss Mommy. By the second or third morning, kids realize that Mom is leaving again and things can get teary. This happened to both my daughters when they began attending preschool at age two. Most teachers are willing to give you a quick phone report 10 minutes later to let you know that all's well and your little one is happily finger painting with the rest of the class.
Timing is Everything
Before you decide to embark on a big change in your child's life because "all the books" and your pediatrician say the time is right, remember that every child is different, and apart from car seat laws, the rest of the recommendations are exactly that—recommendations. They are suggestions based on past experience and the abilities of the average child. So just because your neighbor's son is moving into a big kid bed doesn't mean your child is ready right now. And just because the books say most children brush their own teeth by age three, doesn't mean your precocious youngest child won't pick up the habit earlier by watching older siblings. So use your best parenting instincts to decide when to jump into these exciting toddler transitions . . . and have fun!
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
As recently as the 1980s it was believed that babies didn't feel pain, so they were subjected to procedures ranging from circumcision to open-heart-surgery without anesthesia. Of course that seems barbaric to parents today, but what about the current conventional wisdom that it's somehow easier for young children to adapt to overwhelming life changes than it is for adults? Because they have no choice in the matter, children do indeed adapt readily to the whims of their parents and pediatricians, but having the rug pulled out from under you every few months can make the most agreeable soul angry and resentful: It's no wonder toddlers have tantrums!
Your role as a parent isn't just to follow the current guidelines regarding pacifiers and sippy cups, it includes helping coach your little one to success. You many have to play the heavy, but try to maintain a soft heart while you do it. That means extra cuddle time every day during a big transition period and occasionally fudging the recommended timelines if your little one is traumatized by the shift or simply not ready to handle the responsibility.
Just remember—whether you jump headfirst into these changes or ignore the timelines and do what works for your family, no one goes off to college with a baby bottle and nobody walks down the aisle with a pacifier. No matter what we do, our babies are destined to become big kids, so hang on for the ride!
- Mealtime, Table Manners, and More
- Tooth Brushing Tips for Tots
- Booster Seat Protection 101
- Toddler Troubles
- What's Normal, What's Not? A Guide to Quirky Toddler Behavior
About the Author
Deborah Bohn is a freelance writer and editor living in Nashville with her husband and daughters Isabelle (age four) and Kit (age two). Her writing has appeared on nationally known websites. Her last pregnancy was documented in BabyZone's weekly online journal Deborah's Diary.