Starting at 12 months, your baby is officially considered a toddler. And ready or not, things are going to change after that epic first-birthday cake smash. Here’s how.

By Jenna Autuori
Illustration by Yeji Kim

While babies do get cuter as they get older (“Up me” my daughter would say when she wanted someone to pick her up), a toddler’s development is also characterized by mood changes, temper tantrums, and use of the word “no.”

The toddler age range is between 12 to 36 months. After his first birthday, your toddler will begin to struggle between his reliance on adults and his desire for independence, says Francyne Zeltser, Psy.D., a child psychologist in New York.

 “A better way to put it—a child’s personality begins to develop at this point and they typically learn they have a say in what they can do,” Dr. Zeltser said. However, most toddlers can’t communicate their needs or control their feelings yet. The end result? A whole new set of parenting challenges. 

Whether your child becomes problematic or you breeze through the toddler stage, here are a few ways your daily routine may change after 12 months, plus expert tips to smooth the transition when your baby becomes a toddler.

Mornings

How things have been: Your curly-haired cutie loved being seen in sweet little rompers and ruffled socks. She had the most precious headbands to match every outfit, too.

The new routine? Now she pulls off whatever top you've wrangled over her head and you can't get her to sit still long enough to clip in a barrette. "This isn't always for a lack of fashion sense at the hands of their parents, but rather the child's preference for their favorite color, shirt or fabric," Dr. Zeltser points out.

How to make the transition smoother: 

The dresser and closet should be off limits for a toddler. Don't think of it as stifling your child's independence just yet, but rather keeping options down to a minimum. "Your toddler wants to have an opinion and control, but you need to control the control so it's not overwhelming for you both," says Dr. Zeltser.

To make mornings less hectic, pick out two outfit options the night before. Once your toddler wakes up, let her pick out which look she likes best. Then in the evening, establish a sense of pride and purpose by having your toddler put her clothes in the hamper and say "bye bye"—this way she knows as much as that outfit is her favorite, it's time for it to go away until it's clean again.

Mealtime 

How things have been: Your little one happily ate chickpeas, kale, cantelope, insert any other food here. You were so proud to have a little one that ate anything you made, and you were starting to think you had this parenting thing down.

The new routine? He’s squeezing his lips shut when a spoon comes near and throwing food off his tray left and right. Soon you’re scared your baby is going to be hungry, so chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese become go-tos.

“Parents get so anxious when their easy-going baby suddenly refuses the foods they always ate,” Dr. Zeltser says. But by exposing your child to less and less choices, you end up avoiding “healthy foods” altogether. “Parents want to avoid an issue, so they give in to their kid’s request for other options. In this way picky eaters aren’t born, they’re created,” she says.

How to make the transition smoother:

Children will naturally go for the things on their plate that tastes the yummiest, like the chicken nuggets. Instead of presenting your little one with their broccoli, hot dog, and rice all on the same dish, Zeltser suggests giving smaller portions one at a time.

Start with the least “tasty” (vegetables for most kids) since your child is hungry and will eat whatever is put in front of them. They also won't fill up on the most desirable options first and get the most nutritious foods out of the way.

Playdates

How things have been: You and your bestie sip on Starbucks while pushing your little ones on the swing. Your playdate is as picturesque as those Instagram posts make them seem.

The new routine? Then your baby learns to walk and talk and... to hit? Nothing freaks a first-time parent out more than discovering their sweet, loving baby is suddenly the playground bully once they're able to move around and express themselves freely.

Fortunately, for the most part, if your child is hitting, pushing and/or pulling hair, it’s just an inappropriate attempt at socializing. "Since it isn’t until preschool that kids start to have more of a vocabulary and can put words together to verbally express themselves,” explains Dr. Zeltser. “The pinch or the hair pull is a way to say, ‘Hey, I want to play with you.’” Dr. Zeltser calls this the intent to interact, so don't be alarmed or interpret it as an attempt to harm.

How to make the transition smoother:

When you're alone with your toddler, try coaching him by role-playing situations he may find himself in. “Toddlers need a high level of supervision because they need the modeling: When parents show them how to act through modeling proper behavior they'll start to utilize the skill you've taught them,” Dr. Zeltser says.

Remember, toddlers aren’t argumentative: a tantrum, hit, pull, or pinch is a result of their frustration. They don’t feel understood and can’t get what they want because they don’t have the words to express their needs. If you find your child doing something odd like hitting himself when he gets mad, show him you get he's frustrated, but shift the focus to the replacement behavior (using his words) and away from the problem behavior (hitting).

Family Time

How things have been: Your daughter used to be equal opportunity for you and your partner. Mommy or daddy could do bathtime and it didn't matter who read nighttime stories.

The new routine? Around nine months of age your baby went through separation anxiety as object permanence set in. She understood when something was there, then it wasn't. However around 18 months of age your child starts to develop preference.

"Your child will likely show a preference toward the more familiar parent, often the mom, the one that's there all the time," says Dr. Zeltser. (Sometimes that's grandma or the babysitter, too.)

How to make the transition smoother:

Don't get offended is the number one rule. So many parents begin to question their parenting style or their child's love for them when their kid wants the other adult. Don’t.

If it's your husband's turn to do bedtime, and it's too hard for you to hear your child crying out for mommy, it's really so simple, Dr. Zeltser explains—get away so you can't hear what's going on. "Out of sight, out of mind. If your child doesn't see you as an option then you are no longer an option and they won't keep crying for you and vice versa," she says. 

Take the time to go for a walk or run errands. Your child still loves you and will be just as excited to see you when he wakes up!

Bedtime

How things have been: Mom and dad have called the shots. It's dinner, bath, then bedtime. One activity chains to the next, no arguments. “Once you get your baby into a routine, bedtime really is bliss,” says Dr. Zeltser.

The new routine? Once your child realizes he can express his dislike for having to go to bed, he will push back. Before you know it, you feel like it's a never-ending battle to get your kid to fall asleep.

How to make the transition smoother:

If your toddler starts to complain when he’s put in the crib, set boundaries and stick with them consistently. If the rule is three books, two songs, and a kiss goodnight, you have to stick to that even if you shut the door and have to listen to your child protesting from the other side. No going back in for extra snuggles or forehead kisses.

“This is the most important time for parents to tighten up routines and not give in to your toddler who is testing you,” Dr. Zeltser explains. "There will be screams and sobs, rocking their crib bed rails, and a whole lot of guilt-tripping. But keep it up until the new sleep rules sink in.” Dr.  Zeltser also suggests starting bedtime a half hour earlier than you normally would as you're adjusting to this new stage.

If your child needs a little more persuasion, give them one "get out of bed free card" each night. This helps your toddler feel a little control over a situation they really have no control over.

"With the card your kid can call out to you for one more of whatever they think they need," Dr. Zeltser says. For some children, the bedtime pass can replace the crying and calling out constantly. Eventually, your child will outgrow the need to do this and start to fall asleep on his own.

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