How to Change Your Toddler Clothes without a Tantrum

When we’re dealing with toddlers, it isn’t just strollers or bath time that can trigger off a tantrum.  Even something as simple as changing his clothes or diaper can send a toddler over the brink into civil war.  Although it would be easy to label a toddler as being disobedient or difficult for developing such extreme reactions over a matter that seems so trivial (in our adult eyes), it is important to understand a toddler’s motivations and remember that all things trivial in nature to us are a lot larger in perspective to a toddler.

Toddlerhood has been identified as the first adolescence because it is a period marked with many battle of wills and open defiance as toddlers begin to discover self and a desire for autonomy.  Although there are many times when the reason simply boils down to individual toddler idiosyncrasies, there are occasions when there is a good reason for your toddler’s unwillingness to cooperate.

In such cases, I like to take an analogy that Harvey Karp uses to describe toddlers in his book “The Happiest Toddler on the Block”.  Rather than turning each event into a test of wills and treating your toddler’s budding self expression as an open act of defiance against your parenting authority, imagine yourself as being an ambassador making contact with an individual from a primitive race.  For indeed, that is exactly what toddlers are – a primitive person who hasn’t quite evolved to the 21st Century way of life.

In dealing with my primitive, the following have proven quite effective for gaining his cooperation without the need to wrestle him to the ground and forcibly changing his clothes against his will:

1. Distract

Although this usually works better with younger toddlers who are easily distracted, it can also work well with an older toddler if you choose your distraction well.

With a younger toddler, a toy or object, such as Daddy’s usually forbidden mobile phone, can sufficiently distract a toddler so you can change his clothes or diaper without protest.  Although, I’ve found that usually anything new and “unseen” before works well most of the time.  Alternatively, you can also offer a toy that hasn’t been played with in a long time.

With an older toddler, a suitable distraction might be engaging your toddler in a conversation about a favourite story or character.  Thomas and Friends has always been a fast favourite of Gavin’s, but lately, even references to stories from Mickey Mouse Clubhouse or Little Einsteins have worked pretty well.

2. Rewards

Older toddlers respond fairly well to rewards because they understand a little more about how it all works.  Older toddlers are also beginning to grasp the concept of delayed gratification which is important when offering a reward that is only given after the act of cooperation is completed.  Younger toddlers find it hard to accept something that they cannot have NOW so if this doesn’t work with your toddler, very likely he’s still too young for this tactic.

Treats that are ordinarily forbidden or limited are often useful for gaining cooperation.  For instance, nothing makes Gavin jump up faster than the thought of having a piece of chocolate (although these days, my little primitive has discovered the art of negotiating for more).   Alternatively, as an alternative to sweets, you can reward your toddler with a sticker for his cooperation.

Rewards can come in all manner of ways and do not necessarily have to be limited to physical prizes. Sometimes the promise of a special activity, like a trip to the park, can be just the thing to encourage your toddler to change his clothes. For instance: “If you want to go to the park you need to change out of your pajamas into your play clothes.”

3. Favourite Clothes

Toddlers are also beginning to form their own preferences and this can be utilised to your advantage. Toddlers who have favourite clothes can often be encouraged to change simply by showing them what they will get to wear. For instance, Gavin almost never says “no” to a Thomas and Friends t-shirt.

4. Dirty Tricks

Some toddlers dislike wet or dirty clothes and are usually more willing to change their clothes when they discover their clothes are dirty or wet. If this describes your toddler, you can also play dirty by deliberately “messing” your toddler’s clothes “by accident”.

For instance, taking your toddler to the sink to wash his hands and deliberately splashing water onto his clothes “by accident”. Once the clothes are wet, it becomes a simple matter of changing them.

I’ve played this one on Gavin before and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  Remember, some toddlers can get distressed by the sensation of getting wet – so it can also backfire on you.  The key is to know your toddler, experiment a little and decide whether this tactic will work for you or not.

5. Choosing Own Clothes

Some toddlers just want to express their autonomy and being given the chance to choose what they will wear is sufficient to gain their cooperation. Remember that although toddlers enjoy making their own choices, many find it confusing and overwhelming when presented with too many choices. A simple way around this is to pick out two sets of clothes and ask your toddler which set of clothes he prefers to wear.

With Gavin, sometimes, I can just take him to his drawer and ask him what he wants to wear.  Because he’s such an avid Thomas and Friends fan, he’ll usually take one of those outfits.  Unfortunately, this tactic also means that your toddler only wears the clothes he likes and the ones he doesn’t don’t get worn.

Times when this won’t work is if all the “favourite” clothes are in the wash.  In which case, I think falling back to the option between two outfits you select is a better tactic.

6. Ask for Help

Toddlers enjoy helping as it makes them feel more grown-up and useful. Sometimes simply asking them to help (and pretending to be unable to do the deed yourself) can be sufficient to gain their cooperation.

7. It Might be Cold

Sometimes, if it is early in the morning and the weather is a little cooler, some toddlers might protest against changing their clothes because it is cold. Be aware of your toddlers discomfort and make the necessary adjustments to help your toddler cooperate. If mornings are cold, it may simply be that you need to turn on the heater to warm up the room a little before changing your toddler’s clothes.

In Gavin’s case, because we sleep in an air-conditioned room, sometimes I just need to let him “thaw” out in the living room before he’s ready to change his clothes.

There are many ways to change your toddler’s clothes without having your toddler melt down into a tantrum. All it requires is a little creativity and a good understanding of your toddler’s motivations. By combining the two, you will find that changing your toddler’s clothes doesn’t necessarily have to turn into a battle of wills.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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