8 steps to help infants and toddlers “do it myself”

I would argue this is the hardest stage to offer as little help as needed to your child.  Infants come into this world NEEDING our care, and it is quite difficult to find that line where it is too much.  That and, babies won't resist your help in the way a toddler or older child will. Helping your infant be independent is a matter of finding the things she CAN do on her own, and allowing the time for her to try.

Read through these 8 steps to lay a strong foundation for cooperation, language, persistence, and emotional intelligence.  Don't miss the free printout at the bottom! 


8 steps to help infants and toddlers "do it myself"


Offer Rich Language

You will need to provide the words for almost everything— things your child can see, touch, taste, experience, feel, and do. Talk like you would to another adult, or an older child. By speaking the words at the time of the experience, you offer your child a tool to communicate independently in the future. Limiting your language to “baby talk” or the 2-3 words your child can say misses this valuable opportunity for language development.

Sportscasting: This RIE© practice is a way of voicing emotions and events as they happen, like you would if you were sportscasting a game. You can practice sportscasting from day one until around age 3. This practice is especially helpful for young toddlers who can't yet communicate their thoughts and feelings themselves, but CAN understand if you speak them aloud.

Allow for mistakes and natural development

Infants have a huge task ahead of themselves, most of which needs little to no help from you. In fact, if we get in the way and “help” our children complete movements they can't do yet on their own, it can have long-lasting negative effects on muscle coordination, gracefulness, and strength.  This includes directly helping ourselves and devices that help infants roll over, sit up, stand, pull-up, and walk. We learn through our mistakes. In fact, it's this process of repeatedly trying to accomplish an inner developmental goal that builds confidence, perseverance, problem solving skills, and “grit”.


Model behaviors and offer very slow demonstrations

We humans are built to adapt to the world we are born into, and so possess a strong attraction for watching what other humans do. The brain is at a stage of absorption from birth to around age six, and so your child will take in EVERYTHING from every experience and build her world view, personality, and mindset with this information.

The way you interact with your child shapes how they see themselves, and how they will approach obstacles for the rest of their life. ex: taking a toy away and saying “no grabbing” teaches- the adult has all the power, and grabbing is OK.

Infants will spend a lot of time watching a task and then as they get older can copy a very slow demonstration of a small part of the task (like lifting a finger). As your child gets older, you can provide more complex presentations, like how to brush your teeth, say excuse me, or get a drink. Be prepared to repeat these presentations many times, and don't expect perfection from your child. New behaviors are adapted in pieces, and eventually she will master the whole process.


Encourage participation, help, and independence

At this age, it is easy to choose the quick-fix, do-it-for-you option. Aim for your child to be a team member, not an object to get dressed, fed, and changed. This attitude lays the foundation for future positive body image, willingness to cooperate, and reinforces the child's natural drive for independence.

I love this video of a RIE© influenced diaper change. The infant here is 3 months old, and yet can still begin to participate in their care routine, even if it's just with her focused attention.

For older infants and toddlers, encourage their cooperation by asking questions and making requests.

“Let's put the blocks away together.”

“Would you help carry this inside?”

“Ok, please lift your legs so I can put the diaper under you.”


Provide encouragement, not empty praise

How many times a day are you saying “good job!” to your child? This seemingly harmless phrase is a real hindrance to true independence and self-motivation.  “Good job” is a judgment statement, from the point of view of the adult. Over time, your child will focus more and more on your reaction and less on accomplishing the job for their own enjoyment.  Show your child how proud/happy/excited you are by saying things like:

“Wow, look how tall this is!”

“You climbed all the way to the top by yourself!”

“Tell me about this blue part of your picture”


Watch your control

As adults, our job is to keep our child safe from long-term dangers, by controlling the environment around her. Our job is also to step in and offer support when our child is too tired, or overwhelmed, to move forward gracefully. Over-controlling your child, the environment, or the situation can have long-last negative impacts on your child. 

Do you really need to request or command something of your child? If you do, make sure it's not offered as a question or a choice (Would you like to leave the park now? Could you get your shoes on?”), but a clear statement (It's time to leave the park. We need shoes on to go for a walk now. )

Follow up a non-negotiable command with choices that allow for order of events, or other limited options

"Do you want to do the right or left shoe first?"

"Which color pants today, red or blue?"

"Would you like peas or carrots for your vegetable?"

Support emotional development

Toddlers need to go through the process of a tantrum when they are upset. Only step in to ensure safety of your child, other people, or the environment you are in. Let your child go through the anger/ out of control phase of a tantrum with minimal interruption (except when necessary). Trying to calm them down, explain, distract, or also getting angry makes it MUCH worse. Children have used only their physical bodies for communicating up to this point, so it is the default when they get upset. After the child is calm you can continue the conversation, command, or activity, which is usually met with no resistance.

Suppressing anger or sadness is NOT normal or healthy development. Never tell your child to “Stop crying!” This is impossible to do, and will only make the child feel worse. Instead, help your child recognize and name their emotions:

“Wow, you sound very angry.”

“You are crying, are you hurt?”

“Are you so excited today?”


Respond to the cause of behavior

What is your child really after? Often, the behavior does not match what is truly upsetting or motivating your child to act that way. Keep in mind the big picture, understand your child is doing the best they can with what they have in that moment, and be as respectful as possible. You child must not get the impression that your love, approval, and acceptance is tied to her behavior, choices, or actions.

Focus on connecting with your child, and reaching an agreement, rather than a power struggle. Get around the “no” by changing the kind of request: when would you, how would you like to, which one first? Demonstrate ways to “make it right” and help meet everyone's needs.

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