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But why should children learn to dress themselves early?

Child learning to dress herself - an important skill for childrenChildren are more capable than they are given credit.

Often, because of time restraints, parents wait until it is really necessary, such as just before kindergarten, before they teach children to dress themselves.

But babies as young as six months will benefit from being asked to assist with their dressing. The naming of the body parts can be introduced and reinforced through asking a baby to “push through your right arm. Now your left arm.” So the child learns about moving their arms above their head and against the resistance of the clothing which develops muscle strength. You can add to this through sing-song voice “left arm, right arm” or a song such as ‘This is the way we dress our arms…’ Remember that sing-song voices that change pitch activate and develop another part of the brain. Think about how quickly a baby learns “uh oh!” when somethings drops or goes wrong.

As a toddler, the ability to move and place lower limbs is important. This can be achieved through lifting and placing in short and trouser legs. The controlled movement towards and away from the body is learned through this simple task of dressing. Taking off shoes and socks also requires particular placement of the legs and feet so this can be successful. Putting on socks develops the fine motor (small muscles of the hands) as the sock needs to be held as well as pulled up.

The beauty of dressing is that it can be practiced every day which is essential for neural pathways (brain connections) to be made. The more practice, the stronger these pathways become.

With dressing the upper body, vision is blocked for a short period of time. This requires a child to know they still exist even though they cannot see. It also challenges a child’s balance as the horizon is not able to be a reference point for being upright. The movement receptors in the inner ear then need to make some decisions about where the head and body are in space. We need these to be accurate so we don’t fall over whenever our vision is blocked.

Putting clothing over the head is also a body awareness task as the arms need to do things without the support of seeing what they are doing. Women will particularly understand the need for this skill for tasks such as doing up bras and putting up hair with hair ties.

Doing up buttons, buckles and zips enables little fingers to explore, learning about sustained hold and precise control. This then leads onto more complex fine motor tasks such as handwriting.

Dressing often requires the use of both arms not necessarily doing the same movements. Babies initially can only do things with one hand at a time. Recall block holding. First they hold the block in one hand and when you offer them another block, they drop the first block so that they can hold the new block. Clapping is a movement that develops early as babies are performing the same movement with both arms. Dressing requires more than these mirror movements and therefore is a motor skill enhancer.

Give your baby a great start. Please let them dress themselves.

About Yvonne Wink

Yvonne Wink is an occupational therapist (Bachelor of Applied Science in Occupational Therapy) who aims to add another set of skills to the team around a child. This involves working closely with parents and ...

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