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Tips for parenting toddlers

No doubt most of our toddlers will be on the "nice" list this holiday season, but even the best-behaved little ones test our parenting skills from time to time. As the father of two boys, ages 2 and 5, I know firsthand how parenting toddlers can be rewarding, but also quite challenging. I have collected some tips from my personal and medical experience that, hopefully, some parents will find helpful in improving their toddler's behavior.   

Develop healthy habits. This starts with a balanced diet. Aim to fill half the plate with fruits and vegetables for each meal. The other half should include protein, carbohydrates and dairy. Limit sugars, juice and soda. Make sure your toddler is getting enough sleep. Children ages 1-3 should get 12-14 hours and 3-5 year olds should get 11-13 hours of sleep per day. Naps are recommended through age five. If your toddler will not nap, then designate quiet time each day. Limit screen time to less than an hour per day. TV is not recommended for children younger than two. Instead of passive screen time, read to your toddler often.   

Set your toddler up for success. Establish a daily routine for your toddler and he or she will thrive. Let your child know what the plan is for the day so he or she knows what to expect. Try to avoid difficult situations when your toddler is hungry or tired. For example, a noon grocery store run when your child has not yet napped or had lunch will likely lead to a meltdown in aisle three.  

Reward good behavior. Go out of your way to catch your toddler "being good." Positive reinforcement is the best way to motivate good behavior. For example, make a sticker chart where stickers track welcomed behavior (such as cleaning up the toys). Some experts say to "heap on the praise" whenever you get the chance. This helps your child develop confidence and self-esteem.  

Connect with your toddler. Put down the smart phones and be present. Get on the floor and engage in an activity your toddler is interested in. Younger children (ages 1-3) love it when you act like they are faster/stronger/smarter than you. Older toddlers (ages 4-5) enjoy imaginative play. Spending quality time with your toddler develops a sense of trust and helps form a strong relationship.  

Discipline when needed. Establish a set of rules for your house and family. Be clear about the rules, talk about them often and enforce them. Try to divert your toddler's attention to something else when he is not behaving. If the bad behavior continues, give a warning. If the behavior continues, give a timeout. Timeouts should be in a quiet, safe place and should last as many minutes as the toddler has years of life (for example, three minutes for 3-year-olds). Do not spank. Remember, praising good behavior builds trust and self-esteem. Spanking disrupts that self-esteem.   

Manage a tantrum. The first, and most important step in this situation, is to take a deep breath. Tantrums are usually a side effect of an unrelated expectation or need that has not been met. The child may be excessively tired, hungry or stimulated. Remove your toddler from the situation and put him or her in a safe place to calm down. When your child has recovered from the emotional meltdown, address the underlying need and move on.  

Enjoy the ride. Before you know it, your toddler will be a school-aged child. Don't sweat the small stuff. Have fun with parenthood. Congratulate yourself, spouse and other caretakers often for raising a healthy, happy toddler.

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