This page* offers parenting tips and information condensed from the book
by Dr. Brenda Hussey-Gardner ©1992-2003

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Self-Help Skills
[ Eating Skills | Dressing Skills | Grooming Skills | Household Skills ]

Note: It is extremely important to use caution with me around the house and to supervise me carefully around sharp objects and utensils, appliances, small objects, scissors, hot water, and when playing with strings, ribbons, balloons, etc. (See Safety)

"I can do it by myself!" is a pet phrase of young children from one to four years of age. During these years, I assert my independence by wanting to do many things for myself. I also love to watch and copy what I see other people doing. My eagerness to be independent at this age makes it the ideal time for me to learn basic self-help skills. There are five major types of self-help skills: eating, dressing, grooming, household skills, and toileting. This site discusses the first four types. Toileting, because of its depth, appears in detail in the "Toilet Training" site. As a parent you can foster my development of self-help skills in four ways:

  1. Understand the sequence in which I develop self-help skills.
  2. Provide me with opportunities to develop self-help skills.
  3. Model self-help skills and provide appropriate feedback.
  4. Allow me the time I need to perform the self-help task.

Development of Eating Skills [ Top]

Food Safety

I am at highest risk for choking on food from birth until three years of age and I remain at high risk until I am about four years of age. Choking can occur anywhere and anytime there is food. Avoid offering foods that can cause choking, or modify them to make them safer. Always supervise me when I eat and encourage me to sit in an upright position and to eat slowly.
Some foods are easier than others to choke on. A food's potential to cause choking is often related to its size, shape, and/or consistency.

Size: Some small pieces of food can cause choking by getting into my airway when I try to swallow food before properly chewing it. Avoid offering me nuts and seeds unless you finely grind them. Remove all pits and seeds from fruits that you offer me. Also, take out all bones from fish, chicken, and meat. Large pieces of food may be harder to chew and are more likely to block the airway if inhaled. Remember to cut my food into bite-size pieces or thin slices that I can safely and easily chew.

Shape: Round foods can cause choking, because they are more likely to block my airway completely than other shapes. Cut round foods, such as hot-dogs and carrots, into short strips rather than round pieces. Cut grapes into quarters. Don't offer me popcorn and round candies such as gumdrops or sourballs.

Consistency: Foods that are sticky or tough may be hard to remove from my airway. Don't serve me peanut butter until I am one year old, and then spread it very thinly. Cook tough foods, such as meats and vegetables, until they are soft enough to pierce with a fork. Avoid offering me raisins or other dried fruit and candy such as caramel. Foods that are firm, smooth, or slick may slip down my throat and cause choking. Don't offer me large pieces of fruit with skin or raw peas. Consistency is another reason for avoiding grapes, peanuts, hard candy, and products like hot-dogs, unless you follow the precautions mentioned above.

Note: I may be choking if I cough, make high-pitched noises, cannot speak or cry, and/or have trouble breathing. If you think I am choking, call the rescue squad (911) right away. Knowing what to do when I choke could save my life. Contact your local chapter of the American Heart Association, American Lung Association, or American Red Cross for pamphlets and classes on preventing and treating choking. The American Red Cross Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) course for infants and children includes a lesson on the emergency techniques for choking.


When I am twelve months old, I will eat table foods and can finger-feed myself. Between the ages of one and two years, I am learning how to use a spoon. In the beginning I hold onto the spoon with a closed fist, with my palm tilted downward. When eating with a spoon, I often turn the spoon over as I bring it to my mouth. At around fifteen months of age, I begin to scoop my food with a spoon and feed myself without turning the spoon over. As a one-year-old I can be a messy eater. I may drop my food accidentally and on purpose, and I enjoy playing with my food. I am, however, learning to chew food with my mouth closed. Between twelve and eighteen months of age I learn to hold a cup by the handles and to drink with some spilling. Between eighteen and twenty-four months of age, I begin to hold a cup, without handles, and drink from it with little spilling, using two hands. During this time I also learn to drink through a straw. Around two years of age, I will probably give up my bottle.


As a two-year-old I will develop preferences for certain foods and begin to reject all other foods. Between twenty-four and thirty months of age, I learn to drink from a small cup, holding it with one hand. During this time I will usually begin to hold a spoon correctly, with the palm tilted upward. I can eat an entire meal using a spoon, with minimal spilling. Between thirty and thirty-six months of age, I begin using a fork to spear my food, and I learn to spread with a dull butter knife. Near the age of three years, I learn how to pour liquid from a small container.


By the time I reach the age of three, I will eat independently, needing help only to cut up my food. Between three and four years of age, I refine my eating skills. I begin using a fork more frequently than a spoon, and learn to cut soft foods with the edge of my fork. At this age I also figure out how and when to use a napkin. Between three and a half and four years of age, I learn to prepare a bowl of dry cereal with milk. By my fourth birthday, I will have outgrown a highchair or booster seat, and will sit on a chair at the table to eat, with only occasional spilling.

Facilitating Eating Skills

Encourage Independence

Let me be as independent as possible at mealtime. I may make a big mess, but to develop independent eating skills, I need to practice. While I am learning to use a spoon and fork, offer me a finger food at each meal. This will give me a chance to feed myself part of the meal with my fingers, which will increase my feelings of independence and decrease those of frustration. In addition, give me a spoon and a fork of my own to practice using at each meal. You can help with another spoon or fork. As I become a more independent eater, continue to sit with me while I eat. Mealtime is important for developing social and language skills. It is also a very important family time. Often dinner time is the only time the entire family is together. As I grow older, dinner time may provide the occasion when you get to hear all about my day. And it is important for you to stay with me during mealtime for safety reasons. Left unsupervised, I could choke, fall out of my chair, or hurt myself by putting a spoon handle down my throat or up my nose.

Using a Cup

Start with cups that have two handles. At first it is easier for me to hold on to the handles than onto the cup itself. In the beginning, use a cup with a spill-proof lid, preferably the kind with a slit lower than the lip of the cup. This type of cup is ideal because it allows me to develop the lip positioning I will need to drink from a cup without a lid. When you introduce a cup without a lid, fill the cup only half full. Then, when I spill--which I will, it's just part of the learning process--you will have less to clean up. Be sure to introduce a cup without a lid before I start preschool. Most preschools use paper cups without lids at snack time. It will be easier for the teachers and me if I can drink from a cup without a lid before I go to school.

Drinking from a Straw

Learning to drink from a straw is fun for most children, but it can also be hard work. In my first attempts, I may not suck on the straw long enough to get the liquid all the way up the straw. Once the liquid gets halfway up the straw, I may release my suck to take a breath, and the liquid will fall down back into the cup. This makes the process frustrating for me. To help, give me a short straw or cut a regular straw in half. While using a straw I may become so engrossed in getting the liquid up the straw that I may forget to hold the cup steady and straight. To reduce spilling, first insert the straw through the slit in the lid.

Giving up Brest- or Bottle-Feedings

By the time I am twelve months old, I should sleep through the night without needing to nurse or to drink a bottle. If I nurse or drink a bottle during the night, wean these feedings first. Wean one feeding every three to four days until I am not drinking at night. Use the techniques described in Sleeping Through The Night to facilitate my sleeping, if needed.

At some time between one and three years of age, most parents think about encouraging their child to give up nursing or drinking from the bottle during the day. You may dread this transition because you feel that I will have difficulty without these feedings. You can ease this process for me by weaning one nursing or one bottle at a time and substituting a special activity for the feeding. Expect it to take about four weeks to wean me of all daytime breast- or bottle-feedings.

To begin, wean me from the breast- or bottle-feedings that I need least. These often include unplanned nursings or the bottles you give me throughout the day when I want to drink or I get cranky. Simply substitute these nursings or bottles with a cup of milk, juice, or water, along with a hug for reassurance. This leaves me with two or three feedings, commonly at morning, nap, and bedtime. Continue these feedings for one week to give me time to adjust to the fact that I can't nurse or have a bottle anytime I choose.

Wean the last three feedings so that my favorite feeding is the one saved for last. Wean one nursing or bottle each week. Weaning me slowly gives me time to adjust. If you are nursing, slow weaning also allows your body the time it needs to slow down milk production enough so that you experience little or no discomfort. Weaning the bedtime feeding will probably be the hardest. Nursing or drinking a bottle at bedtime relaxes me, helping me move from an active day to quiet time for sleep. If I cuddle with you on a rocking chair in my room while I nurse or drink a bottle, begin by offering me a special drink on your lap while you hold me in the rocking chair. Gradually move from the chair to the bedroom floor to the kitchen before teeth-brushing. Be sure to continue our normal bedtime routine, such as prayers, singing bedtime songs and cuddling with me.


Learning to pour various liquids is fun for me. The first few times you teach me to pour, use a small pitcher. My little hands make it difficult for me to control a big heavy container. In the beginning, fill the pitcher only one-third to half full. Use water or another liquid that will not stain. To lessen cleanup chores, consider teaching pouring skills in the bathtub before allowing me to pour in the kitchen. Be sure to show me how to pour as you describe what you are doing. Caution me to stop pouring before the liquid gets to the top of the cup. Once I am fairly good at pouring, allow me to pour my own glass of juice. Also let me pour the milk into my bowl of cereal. Letting me do these things on a regular basis will make me feel grown-up and will foster my self-esteem.

Development of Dressing Skills [ Top]


If I am a year old, you probably already know that the key task is not just to teach me how to dress or undress. The greater challenge is to get me to stay still long enough for you to dress or undress me. You can encourage me to stay in one place by singing songs, talking about the colors in my clothes, or pointing to my body parts. Between fifteen and twenty-four months of age, I learn to take off my hat, socks, and shoes--as long as the laces are undone. During this same time, I learn to unzip large zippers.


The dressing skill I may learn first as a two-year-old is putting my shoes on with help. At about the same time, I learn to push my pants down and to unbutton large buttons. I then learn to take off my shirts and to pull up my pants. I still need help getting pullover shirts over my head, and pants up over my bottom. As I approach three years of age, I can independently put on simple clothing items, such as shoes, socks, pants, shirts, and jackets. Even though I can put these items on independently, I still need help with tying and fastening.


Between the ages of three and four, I refine my dressing skills and move toward independent dressing. I learn to undo fasteners, such as snaps and laces. I also learn to button large buttons, distinguish between the front and back of my clothes, zip front-opening clothes, and buckle belts. These skills allow me to get dressed with little help. I will continue to need some help getting dressed until I am almost five years old.

Facilitating Dressing Skills

Undressing is easier for me than dressing. Unless I show an interest in learning to dress myself, wait until I can undress with some help before you introduce dressing. Besides teaching dressing skills when I dress in the morning and undressing skills as I undress in the evening, you might offer a doll or an activity book for me to practice many of these same skills.

When you teach me to undress and dress myself, incorporate the following four strategies. First, position yourself behind me when undressing or dressing me. By putting my back toward your chest, you will teach me how to undress and dress from my perspective. Second, describe what you are doing as you undress or dress me. The third strategy is to undress and dress me slowly, using the same sequence of movements I need to learn. Finally, be sure to allow me enough time to practice undressing and dressing.

Development of Grooming Skills [ Top]


I will develop an interest in grooming skills between the ages of one and two. Brushing teeth and washing and drying hands are the two favorites at this age. I enjoy trying to perform these skills, but I will need help.


Between the ages of two and three years, I become more interested in grooming skills and want to do more for myself. I am better at brushing my teeth, but I still need help to put toothpaste on the brush. I am also better at washing my hands and can even dry my hands independently. In addition, I begin to help wash myself at bath time. By the age of three, I can blow and wipe my nose with some help.


Most three-year-olds want to perform grooming skills independently. I will learn to wash my hands by myself between the ages of three and four. During this same time, I learn to brush my teeth all by myself. This includes wetting the toothbrush, putting on the toothpaste, spitting out the toothpaste, and rinsing the toothbrush. By four, I can also blow my nose without help.

Facilitating Grooming Skills

Washing and Drying Hands

For me to wash and dry my hands independently, I must be able to reach the water, soap, and a towel. If I am too short to reach these items, give me a sturdy step stool to stand on. The most important part of teaching me how to wash my hands is instructing me to turn the water on so it is not hot. Explain to me that cold water and a little bit of hot water together make warm water. Show me how this works. Watch me carefully the first few times I wash my hands with warm water to make sure I turn the knobs correctly. Teach me to test the water with one finger before putting both my hands into the water.

Brushing Teeth

Even though I can begin brushing my teeth when I am a one-year-old, I will not be able to brush my teeth independently and thoroughly until I am four. Until then, I will need your help. When you introduce a toothbrush to me, let me play with it without toothpaste. Encourage me to imitate you as you brush your teeth. Buy a soft child's size toothbrush for me. If I complain that your adult toothpaste burns my mouth, use a children's toothpaste with fluoride. Avoid using a lot of toothpaste because when swallowed, it can cause teeth to stain. Teach me to spit the toothpaste out. This may take time; many children cannot spit purposely and correctly until they are three or four. Also teach me to rinse my mouth out with water.

Most dentists say the goal at this age is for me to develop good teeth-brushing habits. Try to keep brushing fun. If I don't want to brush, try to motivate me by saying something like, "Let's paint your teeth blue." If I complain when you check and brush my teeth, approach the task with a sense of humor. Say, "Let's look in the mirror and see what you would look like if you had four arms. Why don't you wave your arms while I pretend that my arms are yours and brush your teeth." To further encourage the development of healthy teeth and gums, I should avoid sugary or sticky foods that cause tooth decay. Do not let me sleep with a bottle. If I drink a bottle in bed, the liquid sets in my mouth for a prolonged period, coating my teeth. This can cause severe tooth decay. Sleeping with a bottle can also lead to choking and ear infections. If I need a bottle at bedtime, give it to me before I go to bed.

Going to the Dentist

My first trip to the dentist should be around three years of age. Before the first "real" visit, bring me along to the dentist when you go in for a regular checkup. Let me examine the different tools and observe what the dentist does to you. If possible, bring along another adult to supervise me during the visit and to explain what is going on. Avoid taking me along for your dental appointment if your gums bleed or if you wince and squirm. You want my observation visit to be a positive one. If I like the idea and if your dentist has a spare moment, let me sit in the chair and "go for a ride." If I am willing, ask me to open my mouth so the dentist can take a peek. This is enough for the first trip. A few weeks before my first official visit, read a book about going to the dentist or play dentist with me and my dolls to prepare me for a positive experience.

Nose Blowing

Since young children learn by watching and imitating, let me watch you blow and wipe your nose. When I have a runny nose, let me see my nose in the mirror to increase my awareness. Give me a tissue and let me wipe my nose with it while I watch myself in the mirror. Teach me to do the whole process: Get the tissue, blow and wipe my nose, and throw the tissue in the wastebasket. Do not encourage me to blow my nose too hard; this could hurt my ears.

Washing in the Tub

When teaching me to wash myself, it is important that you continue to follow the safety precautions you followed when I was younger. Always test the water before you allow me to get into the water, and teach me to do the same. Always have a nonskid surface on the bottom of the tub and NEVER leave me alone in the tub to wash myself. It takes only seconds and a very small amount of water for me to slip and hurt myself or drown. If you forget something or if the phone rings, take me out of the tub and bring me with you.

To encourage me to wash myself, give me an extra washcloth so I can imitate you as you wash me. Help me put the soap on the washcloth, or let me use soapy hands to wash my body. Have me wash the parts of my body that I can see and reach. You can then do the other parts and touch ups. Name and talk about my body parts as you wash them. Talk about genitals as naturally as you would any other body part. If I don't like taking a bath, try to make it fun by playing more. Try playing games like "Simon Says." For example, say, "Simon says, Lift your arm in the air" before you wash my arm. I will probably have so much fun playing the game that I will forget I am being washed. If I like taking a bath but don't like to wash up, try using a cloth puppet for the washcloth.

Development of Household Skills [ Top]


Once I have mastered walking and running, I will develop an interest in helping you with simple household tasks. This occurs between eighteen and twenty-four months of age. In the beginning, my helping makes household chores take a little longer. However, if you allow for the extra time and stay patient, the pride you will see in my face as I dust the table with you will make it all worthwhile.


By two years of age, I can push and pull doors open and shut. Within another few months, I can open and close doors, using the knob. If you don't have a deadbolt or chain on the door, now is the time to install one. Two-year-olds have been known to walk out the front doors to go outside and play without telling anyone. Between the ages of twenty-four and thirty months, I should learn to stay away from common dangers and learn to handle fragile items carefully. By the age of three, I can actually help perform very simple household tasks and can help put things away.


Between three and four years of age, I become a real helper around the house. I can set the table with minimum help and can put my own things away without any help.

Facilitating Household Skills

Helping around the House

I am becoming a little helper. I love to help perform simple household tasks. I have fun helping, and I feel proud when I do adult-type activities. Let me help you with simple jobs around the house. The jobs should be fun, safe, and fail-proof. Praise and applaud all the help I give. This makes me feel competent and worthwhile. It also does wonders for boosting my self-esteem.

Learning to stay away from Dangers

Although I may understand the danger associated with many things, my natural curiosity and lack of impulse control require constant adult supervision. The exception is when I am playing in an area that is safety-proofed. To teach me stay away from dangers, explain the consequences of common dangers and how to avoid them. Make these explanations whenever potentially dangerous situations occur during daily activities. If I go near a dangerous object or situation, ask me to move away or physically move me from the danger. Firmly explain why you do not allow such behavior. If you think I already know, ask me why I behaved as I did, and then elaborate on my answer as needed.

After one warning, tell me that if I do the behavior again, there will be a consequence. When choosing your consequence, be sure it is something you are willing to do. If you are looking forward to going to the beach and I run into the street while you are loading the car, do not say that I will not go to the beach if I run into the street again. Try to pair the consequence with the behavior. For example, if I touch a hot stove, I can't help you cook. After two warnings, if I continue to go to a dangerous situation and if you cannot remove me from the temptation (running into the street, for example), give me a significant consequence. For example, if I run off toward the street after you have given me two warnings, bring me into the house for one hour. Tell me firmly why you are bringing me inside and why running into the street is dangerous and is not allowed. Do not give in!

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