Smoothly getting your 1, 2, or three-year-old toddler out the door is a combination of planning ahead, clever language, getting enough sleep, and consistent routines. To make the out-the-door transition as smooth as possible, consider the stage of development your child is in and steps to completing tasks.
First, toddlers do not want to leave home and they do not want to leave you. They might love where they are going, but if they had a choice, would pick to stay home with a parent and their things. Your need to be somewhere else does not match their need to be with you. This statement is not meant to trigger guilt because you can certainly securely attach with your child, foster positive development, and still go to work.
Second, toddlers are likely to freeze or get upset if they feel rushed. And third, toddlers are starting to exert their independence with “ME DO IT!” so thrusting your child into her shoes and whisking her flailing body out the door will stress everyone out. Keep these three factors in mind when you are making your out-the-door plan.
Here are my suggestions for getting your toddler to agree to leave the house with you:
1. Make sure everyone is getting enough sleep.
You know your child has slept enough if you do not need to wake her in the morning. Early bedtimes are the key. Sleep educator Alanna McGinn told me that a toddler’s best-before bedtime is 8pm.
2. Create enough time to do your tasks and not feel rushed
Are you waking up to an alarm clock? That means you aren’t getting enough sleep. You have young children who take a lot of energy out of you each day, give yourself a head start on the day with an early bedtime the night before. If your children are consistently waking you up at night, I suggest you read The Happy Sleeper by Heather Turgeon, MFT and Julie Wright, MFT, which has wonderful suggestions for making sure everyone is getting the sleep they need.
Wake up before your children: get yourself and your things ready.
3. Plan ahead: Use mini-deadlines for tasks
Consider the time you have and plan it as a series of mini-deadlines. For example, if your family needs to be somewhere at 8:30am and it takes 20 minutes to get there, start working backwards from your out-the-door time, breaking the morning into 15 or 20 minute chunks where a certain task (pee, eat, change, brush teeth) needs to be completed. This way you don’t look at the clock and panic because your child is still in pajamas and hasn’t eaten at 7:30am. I like to write these deadlines out and have them where I can see them to make sure I am staying on track.
Here is an example of mini-deadlines:
Out-the-door time: 8am
Brushing teeth deadline: 7:45am
Eating deadline: 7:30am
Changing deadline: 7:15am
4. Start the day with love
Begin each day with smiles and snuggles. Fill your child’s attachment tank so (s)he feels connected with you, which will increase her/ his likelihood of wanting to cooperate.
5. Set a morning routine (keep it simple!)
Using your mini-deadlines as a guide, create a morning routine (with your toddler). Establish what order the “jobs” will get done, and communicate what time those jobs need to be completed to stay out of the late-zone (the time after the out-the-door time, which means you will be late). Make sure there is time for play in between the jobs! Also, give your child some choices to do your best to keep power struggles out of the morning time.
You could offer a choice like this, “Do you want to change first or eat first?” or “Do we put play time before or after eating?” or “When you brush your teeth right after eating, then you will have more time to play!” (That’s an example of the “when/ then” parenting strategy)
Write the routine out as a series of simple words or pictures and post it up where you child can see it.
An example of a morning routine is this:
Couch time (for snuggles or a book)
Change— by 7:15
Eat — by 7:30
Brush teeth—by 7:45
Out-the-door (move to the space where outdoor gear gets put on)—by 8
*Some toddlers do better when all the tasks in one area are complete before moving to another area of the house. For example, for those with a second floor, finish all the tasks that need to be done up there like peeing and getting dressed before going downstairs for couch time. You can invite cooperation like this, “Change first, snuggle second! (Yay!) Would you like to change yourself or would you like help?” Smile and nod as you say this. Perhaps add, “I’m looking forward to our couch time.” If you have a powder room on your main floor, you can put a second set of toothbrushes and paste there to avoid getting-back-up-the-stairs battles.
6. Train your child to move from one step to the next
Keep an eye on the time and usher your child from one time block to the next. If a deadline is approaching and the task isn’t done, you can inspire cooperation with something like, “Oh, our eating time is almost over. Do you want a banana tower or banana smiley face?”
Also, each time your child asks to do something, remind her of the routine and time blocks. For example, if a toddler says, “Puzzle?” you can respond with, “Let’s check our schedule to see if we have time.” You can also use this as a tool to getting a task done like this, “Puzzle? Sure—right after we brush your teeth. Yay, I like puzzles.” (That’s another when/ then)
7. Use positive phrases
Use positive phrases and positive discipline to inspire cooperation rather than using force or coercion, which are likely to result in a meltdown. I put a bunch of phrases into this post aimed at parents of children who are one and two-years-old and this one for parents of three and four-year-olds. In the morning, using “It’s _____time” usually works. And keep “okay?” and “please” out of your instructions. These two words in instructions give your child an opportunity to say, “NO!”
My favourites for moving from one task to another are:
“It’s tooth-brushing time. Are we getting to the bathroom on one leg or two?”
“It’s dressing time. Are you picking your clothes or me?”
“It’s shoes-on time! Are we getting to the mud room like rockets or elephants?!”
“Did you hear the story about the lion with the green mane? I’ll tell it to you when you’re in your car seat.”
If you experience resistance, try this phrase, “It is out-the-door time, what do need to feel done?” (As in, what do you need to finish before we go) or “What do you need to feel ready to leave?” I often hear simple things like, “To finish the car race,” or “To put the nose on the face.”
I also recommend using a transition signal like playing a certain song just before out-the-door time so your child knows the time to leave is coming.
8. Scale back what you need to do
In order to attend to your child’s needs and keep her on task, feeling like you have space and energy to help makes a huge difference. Don’t try to cram other tasks into the morning, which are likely to make you feel flustered. Stay in charge of your time.
9. Fill your child’s attachment tank throughout the day
You can use what I call “attachment bridging objects.” Examples are: giving your child a note in her lunch kit, a little “love rock” (fill it full of love before you go by rubbing it in your hands—telling your child to rub it, too, when missing you) or trinket to feel connected to you while you are gone.
When you see your child at the end of the day, take time to reconnect before going home. Hug until (s)he pulls away before getting into the car. When you are home, create at least two five or ten-minute blocks of time where you can put your tasks down and do what your child wants to do.
10. Stay calm!
When things are falling apart, do your best to not lose your cool. I wrote this post for parents and this one with a technique to help calming kids if you'd like more help with that. Controlling and cooling your frustration and supporting your child when (s)he loses it (rather than punishing) will help everyone get out-the-door unscathed.
Would you like more parenting support? I provide free information over on my Facebook page: Andrea M Nair - Parenting Educator