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Toddlers and the Power of Choice

BabyC and I have been struggling with diaper changes recently. When BabyC was a younger infant, diaper changes were good times – a chance to check in together, have a little conversation, and give her 100% of my attention. These last few months, BabyC has really resisted diaper changes. At 14 months, she is now quite mobile and strong, and diaper changes have turned into a three-ring circus, with her rolling over and popping up to stand at each step. If I try to do part of the diaper change while she is standing, she sits down. She seems to resist every step, kicking and crying. I try my best to be patient, keep moving slowly and respectfully, and talk her through each step (see Janet Lansbury’s brilliant post on this), but I haven’t seen much reward for these efforts, until recently.

A few days ago, I accidentally happened upon one solution to the diaper change debacle. BabyC and I were in the kitchen. She was playing with some toys while I fixed dinner. I noticed that she paused what she was doing, and an intense look of concentration came over her face. Poop time. I made a mental note but wanted to finish what I was doing before taking a break for the dreaded diaper change.

But BabyC came over to me and started to tug on my jeans, trying to get my attention. “BabyC, do you need to have your diaper changed?” I asked. She nodded a very confident “Yes!” I was taken aback. I realized that when I had asked the question, I had assumed that she either wouldn’t understand it or would shake her head “no,” since she usually protests diaper changes so much. Wow, mental note to never underestimate a toddler!

I wiped my hands off and reached down to pick her up, but stopped myself when I realized she was holding up her hand for me. I took her hand, and we walked together to the changing table in her bedroom. It wasn’t all smooth sailing from there. She actually still protested during the diaper change, but only briefly. For most of it, she babbled happily with me, and I think was quite proud that all of this was her idea!

What an epiphany! These last few days, we have had three diaper changes that went the same way. Now I just need to remember to try to ask her more often if she needs her diaper changed. I realize that the novelty of this particular choice may wear off soon. BabyC might start practicing her “no” answer more. I’m prepared to start asking, “Do you want to have your diaper changed now or in a few minutes?” For now, I’m enjoying the fact that diaper changes are a cooperative event – more of a partner dance than a three-ring circus.

As a side note, a few weeks ago I found that giving BabyC a choice of color for her new diaper (one of the benefits of using cloth diapers with fun colors!) often helped diaper changes go more smoothly. That lasted about a week, and then the novelty seemed to wear off. If she was already worked up about the diaper change, she wasn’t interested in choosing a color anyway. Now that we’re having more cooperative diaper changes, she is really into making the color choice again.

All of this has reminded me…

Toddlers are all about exploring and asserting their independence. They like to be given choices and to have some control over the course of their day. Give a toddler a choice, and the two of you become partners. The child enjoys the opportunity to make decisions, and it’s more fun for both of you.

I’ve known this about toddlers for a long time. I babysat many young children as a teenager and through college, and I worked at a childcare center. I have seen the power of choice in toddlers firsthand, again and again. The thing is, I’m used to thinking about giving choices to toddlers with more language skills. Giving a child a choice such as, “Do you want some help putting on your jacket or would you like to do it yourself?” requires a certain amount of comprehension and the skills to respond with an answer, either with signs, gestures, or words. So while I know how powerful it can be to give toddlers choices, I hadn’t used them much with BabyC. I realize now that I have been underestimating her.

Just in the last week, BabyC has been really into nodding “yes” or shaking her head “no.” Between this and her ability to point and use a few signs, this opens up a huge amount of conversation for us and choices for her. I’m looking forward to learning more about her preferences through conversation rather than crying and protesting. There are days when I feel BabyC is growing up way too fast, but it is milestones like this that make me love watching her learn and grow.

Have you had any parenting epiphanies lately? Please share so we can learn from each other!

18 Comments
  1. wb #

    Loved your story and this is all ahead of me 🙂 I got a tip from a my teaching mentor once and she said give them two options – both of which you are happy with and one which you figure they will choose. For example in the classroom – put the handball in your bag or give it to me – both of which you are happy with and you know that they will probably put it in their bag rather than hand it over.. Sounds like this is a similar philosophy. 🙂

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    January 26, 2012
  2. calgarymom01 #

    The power of choice is both frustrating and rewarding. My son is 2 1/2 and we’ve been finding that for more than a year now (about your daughter’s age) the more choice we give him, the smoother the day goes. It first started with this one or this one, now or later and progressed as his comprehension and vocabulary grew. It’s amazing how many things I thought had to be done a certain way until I was taught by my son that we do have a choice. Food for instant – pasta can be eaten for breakfast and lunch can be cereal. If we’re bumming around home is there really a reason not to wear shorts. There are so many “we have to”s in life, when there’s an opportunity for choice we try to give it to him. There are days that are frustrating to no end but the rewards are outstanding. What do you want to do today? Go to the mountains and hike!

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    January 26, 2012
  3. Wonderful realization! Alice, I’m so glad you’re finding a way to co-operate with your baby to make diaper changes less challenging, and more enjoyable for both of you. The key, (as you pointed out) is realizing that diaper changing is not something you’re doing to or for your baby, but a co-operative endeavor in which Baby C can and should play a very important role. If you can remember to slow down, include her, and give her choices every step of the way, every time, (Would she like to be changed now or in a minute? Would she like to be carried or will she walk to the changing table? Would she like to stand up or sit down? Would she like to pull down her pants by herself, or would she like you to help? Would she like to choose this diaper or that one? Would she like to use the wipe to try to wipe herself? The possibilities for including her and giving her choice are endless, and not only does this help to give her power in the situation, but she is learning as well- language skills, about self care, and about co-operation.), my prediction is that diaper changing time will continue to be an enjoyable time for both of you!

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    January 26, 2012
    • Lisa, you are so right that the opportunities for giving choices are endless! I really love interacting with her in this way. I love seeing her consider her options and make a decision. I love knowing that she understands so much of what I say to her, even though she only uses a few words herself. I love that giving words to things that she feels or needs may help her to be more aware of these things – the need for diaper change, food (or the feeling of fullness), sleep, etc. It is truly rewarding for both of us.

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      January 30, 2012
  4. Sweet16 #

    My daughter, also a Baby C and also 14 months (nearly 15) has been protesting changes for awhile now too (or at least, lying down on the changing table.) I have tried the “which diaper do you prefer, Elmo or Big Bird?” but often times they both get flung on the floor 🙂 I love Janet’s post and try to always follow her advice, but what works for us, I’m afraid to say, is letting her pick out a toy or book to play with/read while we change. I’m still very respectful of her body and tell her what I’m doing (now we’re wiping, now we’re putting on some butt paste, etc.) but I ask her to read me a story and she quite happily looks at her book while this is happening. So at least it’s not me just jiggling keys over her head to distract her. I’m letting her choose an activity. Yes the intention is distraction, but hey, don’t we all like to read in the bathroom? 🙂

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    January 26, 2012
  5. Great suggestions! And so true! We have this conversation a lot revolving around food and leaving the park. Would you like an apple or an orange for a snack? Do you want to go on the slide or go thru the tunnel before we leave? I’ve read that giving toddlers a choice is giving them power. They have so little control over their lives and allowing them to make little decisions gives them a sense of empowerment and control.

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    January 26, 2012
  6. I could not agree more! My 19 month old had a bad rash that made diaper changes miserable for her no matter how gentle I was, and then, even after it cleared up, she started resisting changes on a regular basis. Asking her if she needed a change, letting her get a diaper and wipes, and letting her lead the way to our ‘changing spot’ all helped tremendously!

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    January 26, 2012
  7. We rotate super cool objects at the changing table that she really loves like a fancy toothbrush, odd container, pictures of family, balloon, mommies mirror from old makeup or even a flashlight… all sorts of things that she can only hold when she’s laying down on there with me present.

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    January 26, 2012
  8. Great post. We’ve recently started struggling with diaper changes as well. Sometimes going slowly and chatting helps, but sometimes I make it a game and act like it’s a pit stop…”How fast can mama change W’s diaper? SO fast!” Other times, I give her something “really important” to hold for me. I’m starting to realize it’s all about having a really big bag of tricks so that when one doesn’t work, I have others to fall back on. Loved reading everyone’s suggestions!

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    January 27, 2012
  9. Great to hear that BabyC is not enjoying having poop in the diaper, first step to potty training! BabyO (20 months) never really fought us outright, but sometimes he’s a squirmy worm – but I think you hit on it – if he get’s changed right after he poops he’s happy. But if you do it randomly and he’s involved in an activity – squirminess. He now wants to participate in the process and so he’ll grab a wipe on occasion and try to help wiping. Its really cute unless he’s holding a furry animal and there is lots of poop…then the furry animal has to join the diapers in the laundry basket and wait to be washed.

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    January 27, 2012
    • Uwe, you hit on a really important observation, I think. Timing is critical! Addressing the need for a diaper change right away, while the child is most aware that something just happened with her body and conditions changed in her diaper, really helps. If I don’t check in with BabyC at this point, she will usually continue playing, and once she is involved in her play. she is less likely to want to be interrupted for a diaper change.

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      January 30, 2012
  10. Completely agree about the power of choices! But, when nothing is working and especially for those diaper changes that involve poop and/or diaper rash, I came up with a solution! I was having daily struggles with my daughter from about age 8 months, so I made a vest that’s called the Happy Changer (www.hulabye.com). It really works to keep them on their back and allow you to change their diaper quickly and without having to struggle. And, there’s surprisingly little resistance from them! I know this generally isn’t a place to promote our own interests, but this is truly a product that will help (and HAS helped) many, many parents in the diaper changing challenge. Alice, I’d be happy to send one for you to try out and you can let others know what you think!

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    January 27, 2012
    • Thanks for the offer to try your product, but I’m really interested in continuing to work on keeping BabyC involved in this process and having diaper changes be something that we do together, rather than something that is done “to her.” I know this isn’t always possible, and diapers still have to get changed, but I’m going to keep working on it:)

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      January 30, 2012
  11. Thanks, everyone, for your wonderful comments! It is great to know what works for your little ones, because as Squintmom says, it helps to be prepared with several strategies and tricks for getting diapers changed! On the topic of involving our little ones in the decisions about their day, I have also been trying asking BabyC if she is tired and ready for nap/bed in the last few days. I have been surprised to find that she almost always answers “yes” (head nod), and then we happily start the process of getting ready for bed together. Of course, I know she is tired because she is showing me signs of it, but I like the idea of involving her in the decision to transition towards sleep and to help her be aware of how her body feels and what it needs.

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    January 30, 2012
    • Sweet16 #

      Ooh that scares me … what if she says “No, I’m not tired and would like to stay up another hour!?” 🙂 I guess we need to trust. I have started to give heads-ups — “in 15 minutes we’re going to go upstairs and get ready for bed. So it’s time to finish our milk!” Then a countdown every 5 minutes until it’s time. My Baby C has been great (knocking on wood) with going down, but I’m always steeling myself for the day it becomes difficult.

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      January 30, 2012
      • Yup, I know, totally scary. I do think it is a good thing to trust them, and in doing so, encourage them to be more aware of how they are feeling. Right now, my BabyC likes sleep and seems to have some awareness of its value. I may have to change my tactic if she decides to fight bedtime more. For now, if she says she isn’t tired, I can say, “Well, let’s play for a few more minutes, and then we’ll start getting ready for bed.” I think the more we practice cooperation now, the less likely it is to become a difficult power struggle later.

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        January 31, 2012
  12. Lori #

    O has taken to being totally outraged when I offer a choice more as a gimmick, like the diaper color. He seems truly offended that I don’t get what he really wants which is to not have his diaper changed. So, I’ve become more selective about the choices offered. Our newest trick…”Let’s A then B” as in “Let’s take care of your diaper then keep playing.” “Let’s eat then play with puppy.” O really gets it. It creates a beautifully cooperative diaper change and it makes me think that I’m helping him become a better citizen in this world. Somethings are necessary evils, like changing diapers, and it’s best to not procrastinate about it! I think it helps him to feel as though his needs are valued and will be addressed as soon as possible. Just now it was “Let’s put shoes on then go outside.” He went from near-tantrum about going outside now to being my instant helper and it took him ten minutes to bring his shoes one by one while I cleaned up our snack. Then he got my shoes for me, giggling hysterically. It’s really nice to be on the same team and I think he thinks so too.

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    February 9, 2012
    • Awesome. Nice to see how the strategy evolves. Your current strategy seems more genuine, and I’ll bet it helps him think ahead, learn to plan a little, and enjoy delayed gratification, which seem like important skills to learn. Thanks for always preparing me for what comes next:)

      Like

      February 10, 2012

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