At this age, your toddler is an avid listener, but lacks the thinking skills to always make sense of what he has heard. Browse the information and links below to see what your little one is experiencing and learning this month.
What It’s Like for You
Christian and Marisol’s 35-month-old, Isabella, has started talking a lot lately about thunder: Every night Bella asks us, “Will it rain tonight, mama? Will it boom, papa?” She hardly seemed to notice storms when she was little. Then one day, a few months ago, we had a thunderstorm and she’s been so scared of them ever since.
One of the by-products of your child’s growing creativity and imagination is that she is now able to imagine scary things, but is not yet sure what is real and what is not. Dogs, darkness, monsters, thunderstorms, dogs (or other animals), and doctors are all very common fears that emerge between 3 and 5 years. While the fear may not seem rational to you, it is very real to your child. You can help by:
- Validating your child’s feelings and providing reassurance: You are scared of the loud booming sound. It is really loud. It’s called thunder. You are safe inside. Come sit next to me.
- Offering another activity as a distraction: Let’s draw with markers. Would you like to draw a picture of what the thunder sounds like?
- Brainstorming ways to reduce your child’s fear. One parent has a ritual where he and his children yell Hooray after every bolt of thunder. Their momentary fear is quickly reduced by the fun of being able to yell in the house. A fear of dogs can fade with short and controlled visits, over a period of time, with child-friendly dogs. A toddler can be given a “magic monster spray” (water in a spray bottle) to rid his room of monsters.
Your child may also experience worries based on something he overheard you or others talking about, or what he saw on television. At this age, your toddler is an avid listener, but lacks the thinking skills to always make sense of what he has heard. For example, if there has been a recent weather-related tragedy that everyone is talking about, your child may not understand that the event didn’t happen nearby or that it will not affect his home or family. Encourage your child to tell you, from his perspective, about his worries. This helps you understand where he’s coming from and provide the appropriate reassurance that he is safe. However, if your child appears preoccupied or unable to be reassured each time it rains, you may want to talk with a child development specialist or mental health professional to brainstorm additional ways of supporting your child.
Most importantly, remember that a child should never be forced to “face,” or get over, his fear. That approach can actually increase a child’s fear and negatively impact his trust in you. Fears are a part of your child’s developmental age and stage. With loving support, patience, and time, most children work through what scares them.
What It’s Like for Your Child
Granny and I were making pancakes for breakfast. I put on my apron and said, Look at me! I’m a real cooker! Granny laughed. She said, You are a cooker! We call a person who cooks, a chef. Okay, I said, I’m a chef! Granny let me dump the flour in and break the egg. Ew! I got slime all over my hands! I started to cry and Granny helped me up to the sink so I could wash my hands with soap. She said, Look what a great job you’re doing getting your hands clean again! That made me feel proud. Granny gave me a spoon and told me to stir as fast as I could! So I did, and I got a big lump of batter on the counter. Oops, I said. Granny just laughed and kissed me on the head. I love her. She never gets upset about spills. Then I stood on the stool while she cooked at the stove. She showed me what her spatula was and which one was the frying pan. When we were done, she let me pour my own syrup. Granny said, Now we have to be careful. These pancakes just came out of the pan. I said, Yeah, they’re hot, right? When we called Papa in for breakfast, he said they were the best pancakes he ever had. Granny and I are good chefs.
What Your Toddler Is Learning
- To build strong, positive relationships as she enjoys the time she spends cooking with her Granny
- To cooperate as she and her grandmother work together to make pancakes
- To be patient as she waits for the pancakes to be finished cooking
- Self-help skills when she washes her hands at the sink
Language and Thinking Skills:
- Role playing when she puts on the apron and pretends to be a chef
- New words such as chef, spatula, and frying pan
- Logical thinking skills—that a pancake just out of the frying pan would be too hot to eat right away
- Fine motor skills as she uses her hands and fingers to dump, pour, stir and crack the egg, and when she washes her hands.
- Sensory awareness when she notes and dislikes the feel of egg on her hands
What to Expect From Your Child’s Development
As you read the chart below, keep in mind that development is not a race and that every child grows at her own pace and in her own way. Your child may develop skills faster or slower than indicated below and still be on track. If you have questions or concerns, talk with your child’s health care provider or other trusted professional.
Your Child’s Development From 30 to 36 Months
|What Your Baby Can Do||What You Can Do to Connect With Your Baby|
My body lets me do “big kid” stuff now!
|I may be able to:
I use language to express my thoughts and feelings.
I am using my new thinking skills to solve problems.
I can do so many things by myself!
I am starting to notice similarities and differences in people.
My friends are very important to me.
Did You Know…
A large, 2-year study of 496 toddlers found that, on average, girls are potty trained by 35 months and boys by 39 months? The study found that the learning process for successful potty training lasted, on average, 8 to 10 months. Researchers also found that attending child care or having a working parent did not affect the timing of toilet learning. However, there were two sub-groups that did see toileting skills emerge earlier than average: Single-headed households and non-Caucasian families were more likely to have children successfully master potty training at earlier ages.
What the Research Means for You
If your child is potty trained already, congratulations on retiring the diapers. But if your toddler is still working on these skills, never fear. The key is to avoid turning potty training into a power struggle. By “forcing” children to use the toilet, parents run the risk that children will rebel, which can actually lengthen the process. In some cases, it can also lead to problems like withholding urine or bowel movements, which can have health implications for children.
If your child is still working on potty training, consider letting him decide each day whether to wear a diaper, a pull-up or underpants. Giving your child some measure of control helps him feel like he is part of the decision to use the toilet.
And, although it seems like the opposite of what you should do, it’s best not to make a big deal when your child does begin using the toilet. Some children feel a lot of pressure when their parents are ooo-ing and ah-ing over their potty successes. They can become very worried about “failing.” Instead, let your child know that he should be proud of himself, and then go on with your day. If your child continues to show no interest in toileting or is not potty trained by age 4, speak with your pediatrician about the possible causes and strategies for helping your child learn this skill.
Spotlight on: Preparing Your Toddler for a Sibling
While a sibling is a gift to your older child, most toddlers don’t quite see it that way just yet. Sharing your attention, your lap, and your love may not seem like much of a gift. A new sibling—and sharing you—can actually feel like a real loss for her. And while you know that siblings can be a source of friendship and support to one another for the rest of their lives, it may take your older child a little while to appreciate this!
Here are some ideas for preparing your toddler for the arrival of a sister or brother:
Share books about new babies, families, and sisters and brothers.
Reading together gives your child the chance to think through this change, ask questions, and to see how other children have coped with a new sibling.
Look through photos of your child’s first months.
Talk to her about what happens when a new baby comes home.
Use pretend play to act out baby care with dolls and to mimic the daily rituals your child will soon see you do with your newborn, like diaper changing, breastfeeding, and bathing. Your toddler can also pretend to be the baby—sometimes the nurturing attention you pay your child during this game is very reassuring and comforting.
Include your child as much as possible in the birth.
Have her come to the hospital or birthing center afterward, to see that you are okay and to feel a part of the excitement surrounding the baby.
Consider giving your child a baby doll as a “gift” from his sibling.
When you are back home, you can suggest that he care for the doll as you care for the new baby and point out what a good job he is doing.
While for many families the transition from one to multiple children is incredibly exciting and joyful, it is also very common to have some “sibling rivalry” bumps along the way.
Here are ways to help your older child cope with sibling rivalry:
Allow your toddler to act out angry feelings through play.
Pretend play can be a great way for your child to express the mixed feelings she will likely be experiencing. Acting out aggressively with dolls or stuffed animals is a safe and healthy outlet for her. The more she can get her feelings out in non-destructive ways, the quicker she is likely to move through this phase.
Validate your toddler’s feelings.
Let him know you understand how hard it can be to have a new baby at home and that it’s okay to feel angry (and/or the other feelings you think he might be experiencing.) This will let him know he is being “heard” and can help him cope with this big adjustment. It can also reduce feelings of anger toward the baby.
Show your child how important being an older sibling is.
You can strengthen the bond between your children by showing your older child how special she is to the new baby. Sarah gives you the biggest smiles! You really know how to make her happy. Or, What a pretty dress you picked out for Sarah. It’s just the right thing to wear today. The more important and valuable your older child feels, the less she may see the baby as a rival.
Include your toddler in the baby’s daily routines.
For example, when you are feeding your newborn, have your child sit next to you and tell him a story or sing a song together. Offer ways he can help with baby care (getting the diaper, choosing the baby’s clothes).
Find ways to make your firstborn feel special.
Make time to spend alone with your toddler. Even a trip to the supermarket can be a treat if your child has you to herself. Whatever you do together, the key is to make it a fun and loving time for the two of you to connect. Cuddle up with a book, sit and sing to your child as she takes a bath, or color a picture with her at the kitchen table.
Set clear limits, without anger, if your child acts out toward the baby.
Occasionally a toddler may try to hit or otherwise show physical anger toward a new sibling. This is very normal. Older 2-year-olds, while quite verbal, may not have the words to express the strong feelings they are experiencing so they resort to action. First, remind your child of what you want him to do: Be gentle. If the behavior continues, then use a serious (not angry) voice to set the limit for your child—No hitting the baby. Hitting hurts. We do not hit in our family. Avoid having your child sit alone or otherwise isolating him . This can only intensify feelings of jealousy or resentment toward the baby. Instead, show him how to touch the baby in gentle ways. Most importantly, never leave your baby alone with an older sibling. Even a toddler with loving motives can accidentally hurt a baby.
Stay supportive even if your toddler goes back to using more “baby-ish” behavior.
Toddlers who are adjusting to a new baby in the family often regress in one area or another, be it sleep, potty-training, or by returning to more “baby-ish” behaviors like using a pacifier or bottle again, or wanting to be held and carried. Waking at night provides the attention they miss during the day and the reassurance that they’re still loved and cared for. The key is to keep routines consistent, especially with sleep, while also making plenty of time for cuddling and nurturing your toddler. Over time, she will return to her usual behaviors.
Let’s Play: Activities That Nurture Bonding and Learning
Whip Up Some Oobleck
What’s oobleck? It’s a mixture that, when you touch it, you say, “Oooo…bleck!” This is a great activity for curious toddlers that combines cooking and play. Together with your child, mix 1/3 cup of water and five to seven drops of food coloring (optional) in a plastic bowl. Slowly add 1 cup of corn starch, without stirring. Let the oobleck stand for 1-2 minutes. Then suggest that your child grab some in his hands. You’ll discover that the oobleck, when squeezed, turns into a hard ball. When your child opens his hand, the oobleck will turn back into a liquid. Through this activity children learn science concepts, such as liquid/solid, and the ability to follow directions. You are also building your child’s language skills as you talk about your observations.
Wrap and Roll
Give your child a roll of toilet paper. Ask her: What do you think we can do with this? You will be amazed to discover what she does. The toilet paper, unrolled, might become a road. Or it may be a dragon’s tail. Let your child unroll and spread it out to her heart’s content—and then make cleaning up fun by having a contest to see who can gather up the most paper in one minute. Games like this encourage creativity, pretend play, and symbolic thinking skills.
What’s on Your Mind?
1. I give my almost 3-year-old a choice of what to wear and sometimes even let him pick out his own clothes when we shop. Yet he still wants to wear the same thing (sweatpants and a short-sleeve shirt) every day. How can I coax him into wearing other outfits?
While you might not love his “uniform,” wearing favorites over and over is a stage most children go through. Preschoolers have very little control over most things in their lives. Letting your child choose what to wear gives him some “say” over something that matters to him, while making an issue out of it can create a more fierce attachment to this outfit. And if the day comes where all three of his favorite sweatpants are in the wash, don’t panic. Use this as an opportunity to help your child learn to cope with disappointment—an important life skill. You can explain: Your favorite outfit needs to be washed today. I know you are disappointed, but it will be clean for you to wear tomorrow. For today, you can choose your red sweats or your blue overalls. Which would you like? He may protest in the beginning but if you’re clear and consistent, he’ll adapt over time.
2. Sometimes, when I try to explain to my 35-month-old the reason why we have certain rules (like no touching the stereo, or why we can’t go to the park right now), she seems to understand and accept it. Other times, she just throws a tantrum. What should I expect from her regarding understanding limits?
Between approximately 2 ½ and 3, children begin to understand the logical connection between ideas—the “why”of things—which is the reason they start to ask “Why?” about almost everything! It is a major milestone in their overall development and in their understanding of how the world works.
However, this stage can also be very confusing and exasperating for parents. The inconsistency you’ve described in your daughter’s behavior is a perfect example. It’s due to the fact that a 35-month-old’s grasp of logic is still pretty shaky. One minute they seem very reasonable and wise and the next act totally irrational. This is coupled with the fact that children this age are not in full control of their strong emotions that can interfere with, and often trump, their ability to act as rational beings.
So when you tell your daughter she can’t stay up “super late” because she needs to have lots of rest for her friend’s birthday party in the morning, she may go right along with it. But when you tell her she can’t go to the playground today because it’s raining, she might completely lose it. You’re left feeling confused—why is one explanation harder to understand than the other? The answer is: It’s not. It’s just how an almost 3-year-old processes the world.
At this point it is best to explain the rule matter-of-factly and to be consistent in the follow-through. If your child throws a tantrum, validate her unhappiness/anger/frustration but don’t give in, as this will just make the tantrum a successful tool for her. It will also confuse her about what the rules really are. When your actions match your words, she will learn the rules much more quickly.
These interactions help set the stage for the negotiations she will try to engage you in from here forward. Just wait for the déjà vu you’ll feel in 12 years when you try to explain curfews. Until then, bear with your passionate 3-year-old, and rest assured that understanding logical connections and family rules is a skill that gradually unfolds over the next few years.
- Terrie Rose, PhD, President and Founder, Baby’s Space
- Ross Thompson, PhD, Professor of Psychology, University of California at Davis
- Robert Weigand, MS, IMH-E, Director, Child Development Laboratory, Arizona State University