How to Teach Your Toddler to Tidy Up After Themselves

When you are pregnant, the last thing you want to do is bend over to pick up your toddler’s toys strewn all over the house. Never mind trying to get down on the ground to crawl around looking for lost stuffies under couches. So how young is too young to teach children to pick up after themselves? The Pulse thinks this is a great question all parents and caregivers should ask. We all seek to raise self-sufficient children who will become responsible adults like us, correct? So here are some tricks to get your toddler to start cleaning up after themselves – and without a temper tantrum.

We all know how little time it can take for a toddler to turn a perfectly neat room into a disaster zone. Frustratingly, toddlers seem to thrive in chaos. We also know that it will take us four or five times as long to clean up a toddler’s mess as it took them to make it – especially at slow-motion pregnancy speed. Keeping a neat and tidy house with a toddler (especially if you are later in your pregnancy and feeling less than energetic) can sometimes feel like an exercise in futility. Learning to accept some mess and chaos is an important starting place for many first-time parents.

Pregnancy is a great time to start teaching your toddler to clean up for themselves for several reasons. First, your toddler will be much more receptive to learning something new and not-so-fun before their new sibling arrives. Once they have to share their home and parents with a new baby, toddlers’ cognitive ability to cope with difficult challenges will be limited by their emotional distress.

Pregnancy is also a great time to teach your toddler the new habit of cleaning up after themselves because you will need more help once your new baby arrives. One study estimated that parents pick up after their children an average of 28 times per week. It will also take time for your toddler to practice picking up until it becomes a habit. According to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes adults between 18 and 254 days for a person to form a new habit. So better to start your toddler practicing cleaning up sooner rather than later.

With your growing belly and change in center of gravity, the last thing you need is to trip and twist an ankle on a toy left in the middle of the room. Besides reducing your risk of tripping, falling, or hurting yourself, cleaning toddlers’ toys keeps them from getting damaged or lost.

So how can you make cleaning up with your feisty toddler successful and not a chore? Here are a few expert parent tricks:

  1. Let go of perfection. A good mantra for everything parenting, but certainly, one to repeat to yourself if you start feeling panicked by the toddler tornado that destroyed your living room.
  2. Add extra doses of encouragement. Praise your child for what they do clean up and put away, even if Marie Kondo would not be so proud of their tidying.
  3. Make cleaning up a game. Set a timer and “race” your toddler to see who can put all of the Barbies in the bin first.
  4. Don’t clean constantly. Limit the number of times you ask your toddler to clean up per day or week depending on their tolerance and appetite for cleaning. Both you and your child will go crazy if you try to keep a cap on the mess all day, every day.
  5. Create a dedicated mess zone in your home. That way, your toddler can move toys out of your way without putting them away. No one likes to put away a half-finished puzzle, right? So why not have your toddler pick a project-in-process destination where they can park unfinished masterpieces?
  6. Try a toy rotation. Shrink the mess by limiting how many toys your toddler has access to daily or weekly. They can’t possibly play with all of the toys they have at the same time.
  7. Make it easier for them to tidy up. For example, repurpose old shoe boxes or buy brightly colored storage bins to help your toddler know where to put the mess.  Your living room looks less like a toy war zone with the mess out of sight inside a box. Take Polaroids of the toys that belong in each bin, or have your toddler draw picture labels.
  8. Share the work. Don’t put your feet up and scroll on your phone while your toddler straightens up, no matter how tempting it might be. Instead, you tackle the more challenging parts of the clean-up project and leave your toddler the quick and easy tasks to boost their sense of accomplishment and success.

Cleaning up with a toddler is a chore for you and your child. But it is worth the struggle. Research shows that kids who start doing chores at a younger age are more likely to have relationship, academic, and career success. We also know that giving children household chores as toddlers helps build a lasting sense of mastery, responsibility, and self-reliance. Young toddlers have enough motor skills at 18 months to clean up after themselves. But, even knowing there may be a silver lining to the toddler tantrum storm now, constant battles over tidying up are exhausting, whether you are pregnant or not.

So, are you a bad parent if you get frustrated or impatient and clean up for your toddler rather than going through the effort of waging another clean-up battle? We all know that feeling – of wanting just to get it done yourself, the right way, quickly, and easily with no whining or crying? No. But try not to give in to this temptation. It might be a hard parenting lesson, but try not to clean up for your toddler. Think about what message you are sending if you ask them to clean up but then give up on them, part way through and do it yourself. They may interpret your behavior as telling them they can’t do it independently. You don’t want to be cleaning up for your child for the next 18 years, do you?

Teaching your toddler to start cleaning up after themselves is a way to protect yourself from burnout, especially before your baby arrives. Many of us lack the emotional and temporal bandwidth to get our children to clean up after themselves regularly. If you feel yourself wavering, think of this as an important life skill you can teach your toddler now. Imagine your toddler as an adult trying to find a roommate or partner to clean up for them. You are giving them a gift by being firm and patient.

It is not too early to teach your toddler to clean up after themselves. The earlier you have your kids cleaning up after themselves, the better! Routines help give children structure. Your toddler is looking to you to create routine, predictability, and regularity, but not rigidity. It is ok to help your toddler clean up or take a pass on cleaning up a Lego explosion for one day because you are modeling flexibility and a tolerance for a bit of chaos. But by modeling a regular clean-up routine as part of your family’s day and setting clear expectations that clean-up is a part of play, you are helping to raise a self-sufficient toddler.

Amy Harris
Amy Harris is a certified nurse-midwife with a Master's Degree in Maternal and Child Health from Harvard Chan School of Public Health. Her passions are health literacy and women's reproductive health. A recent two-year sabbatical with her family in Spain was the impetus for becoming a freelance women's health writer. An exercise nut, she is happiest outdoors and on adventures abroad.

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