Most Common Questions About Toddlers, Answered By a Pediatrician

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I’m a mom of three boys, and a pediatrician who treats babies every day, and I still can’t get over how fast the first year goes. It’s unreal to me how quickly babies go from being cuddly little things that you can hold in one arm to walking, talking people with very definitive, strong opinions. I look at my baby (who just turned 1) and I can’t believe he’s already entering toddlerhood. And here’s the thing: So much happens in those first few years. Between the ages of 1- and 2- years-old children will continue to have an explosion of verbal development and motor development. Toddlerhood is an exciting time but it can also be challenging. Below are some of the more common questions about toddlers that parents ask me all the time…

1. Q. My toddler seems to act out a lot. Is this normal?
A. Yes. I often say that toddlers are like teenagers but with less language. They are trying to figure out how to be their own person while still wanting to be close to you and needing you at the same time. It can be really challenging as a parent. Ultimately, they want to know you are in charge and in control. The alternative is far scarier. They still need your help to self-regulate.

2. Q. What’s the best way to discipline my toddler? 
A. Use distraction as a method of discipline. You cannot reason with a 15-month-old. If you are trying to reason with a 15-month-old, you may as well be speaking a foreign language. Children this age have a short attention span, and you can use this to your advantage. If you can get in and distract your child before they grab another child’s toy, it sends the message that what they’re doing is not okay; but, it also lets them save face and hopefully prevents a meltdown. Try to use other words, such as “gentle” and “careful” instead of the word “no.” Try to save “no” for things that are physically dangerous, such as running in the street or touching a hot stove.

3. Q. Thanks for the distraction tip, but my toddler has tantrums a lot. Any advice?
A. You can’t distract your child from every meltdown. Once she hits the meltdown point, both of you just need to ride it out. Don’t try to distract, beg, or bargain with her in the moment (I know it’s very tempting). Wait until it ends and just be there. Hug your child and let her know that you still love her even though she lost control. Then move on to a new activity. Everyone loses control sometimes. Having the knowledge that they are still loved, and that you both can move on, is very reassuring.

4. Q. How much should my toddler should be eating?
A. On average, children ages 1 to 3 need about 40 calories for every inch of height. A serving size is about one tablespoon per age. Therefore a typical toddler meal will include one to two tablespoons of protein, two tablespoons of fruit and vegetables, and one to two tablespoons of a starch. I advise parents not to think about their child’s eating on a day to day basis. With toddlers there will be days when you feel like they are living on air and days when they eat you out of house and home. If your child is growing and developing normally try to avoid food battles with him. It will almost always backfire!

5. Q. How can I prevent picky eating?
A. Introducing a variety of foods once your child starts solids is the best way to help keep her from becoming a picky eater as she grows up. Model healthy eating habits; if you eat healthy foods then it is more likely that your child will, too. Another idea is to involve your toddler in grocery shopping and meal prep. Even young children can mix with spoons or help with measuring cups. Toddlers really like to help and are proud of themselves when they do. If your child is involved in their food prep he will feel ownership over the food and be more likely to try it. When on the go, provide fun and healthy snacks, such as cut up fruits and veggies.

6. Q. How can I encourage independence but still make sure my child is safe?
A. Let him do little jobs or tasks around the house. For example, at bedtime, have him turn off the light or turn on the night light. It seems small but it usually makes bedtime less of a battle. But don’t overdo it; while encouraging independence and giving choices is great, try not to overload him with choices. I recommend giving two choices at a time. In keeping with the bedtime example, you can try, “Would you like to wear your train pajamas or your race car ones?” Small choices encourage independence without overwhelming your child.

7. Q. How do I know when my toddler is ready to potty train?
A. Parents often feel pressure to potty train at a certain time, but here’s the thing: There’s no need to rush. It will be easiest to potty train her when she shows signs of readiness, such as telling you when she pees or poops, understanding and following simple commands, and feeling uncomfortable when wet. Your child also needs to be able to pull down her own pants. Start slow by letting her observe you using the toilet. Let her sit on the potty and read a book. Keep it low pressure. Every child is different. Just because your niece potty trained at 2-years-old doesn’t mean your child needs to.

My best advice for dealing with toddlers (and all children) is to be consistent. Sticking to consequences and having the consequence suit the poor behavior is the most successful way to prevent the undesired behavior from repeating. If you let your child do one thing one day and then punish him for the same thing the following day then you’re not sending a clear message and he’ll become confused; that confusion will actually lead to an increase in the undesired behavior whether it’s biting, refusing to eat, or throwing food.

Keep in mind, toddlerhood is a fun time. Your child is developing and becoming more of a “person” with each passing day. Enjoy the good moments. Praise your child when she behaves well. Praise, encouragement, and positive reinforcement are priceless and better yet far more effective than punishments!

More Advice from Dr. Blanchard:

Photo: Getty