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Songs are one of the most powerful ways to ease toddler transitions

Girl crying in toddler carseat

Crying, tantrums and overall willfulness. Toddler transitions are hard. Inside find six powerful strategies to improve cooperation and decrease crying.

“I’m not tired! I wake up.” He declares. He has his hands are on his hips and stomps his foot for emphasis.

My strong-willed toddler is just shy of three and is arguably the most vocal of my three kids.

Even though my little guy isn’t quite ready to give up his nap, this time of day plays out the same way.

After insisting he isn’t tired, he tells me he’s hungry (even though he’s just eaten). Then, shortly after his head hits the pillow, he’s fast asleep.

Related reading: Front-Loading, Redirection and Connection: 3 strategies for parenting a strong-willed child

But this isn’t just with nap time.

After he wakes and has had something to eat, we typically play. But within an hour or so marks another transition. Now, he needs to stop rolling peppermint scented playdough and get his shoes so we can get his siblings from school. And yet again, I’m met with wilfulness, whining and sometimes, tears.

Brushing teeth at bedtime, bathtime, and honestly, most transitions evoke a strong reaction from my toddler.

Though it isn’t easy when we are under a time constraint, I understand it isn’t easy for him.

Boy i

Why transitions are hard for toddlers.

First and foremost, toddlers are very inexperienced little humans. Simply put, they lack the life experiences and executive functioning skills to understand that if they miss their nap, it will wreak havoc on their lives (and ours) and that their siblings need to be picked up from school.

What is executive functioning?

Executive functioning refers to the mental processes responsible for flexibility, planning, remembering instructions and juggle multiple tasks (1). It is often referred to as the air traffic control centre of the brain as it is what filters information, prioritizes tasks and controls impulses and emotional responses. Children are born without any executive functioning. Simply, they have an innate ability to develop these skills, but it isn’t until they are given learning experiences that executive functions develop (2). There is a window for dramatic growth between the ages of three and five years of age (2). All of this is to say, toddlers have little-to-no ability to transition easily from desirable tasks, control emotions, and pull from past memories to understand that nap time isn’t the end of all play forevermore.

But that’s not all.

Their psychosocial developmental stage also makes toddler transitions that much harder.

According to a widely held theory of developmental psychology, toddlers are in a stage known as Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt (3). Meaning, as infants develop into toddlers, their main psychological goal is to test out and develop their independence. So, this means, that toddlers lack the abilities mentioned above and also want to be as independent as humanly possible. Therefore, each transition marks the possibility for willfulness and even tantrums.

Read: Why you shouldn’t punish tantrums and what you can do instead

The best ways to ease toddler transitions

1. Have a general routine about your day.

Routines make daily life predictable. And, the more predictable the day is, the easier it is to transition between activities. Getting dressed, time for free play, cleaning up, bath and bedtime should all follow a standard structure.

2. Front-load

Arguably the most powerful strategy of all, front-loading is simply giving your child a head’s up about your expectations or when a transition is coming. For instance, “In two more minutes, we need to clean up and get your brother and sister.” Even though toddlers don’t have a sense of time, this allows them to understand that it is almost time to switch gears.

3. Sing transitional songs.

There is a reason that preschools and kindergartens rely heavily on songs to cue and ease transitions. Songs are one of the best strategies to ease toddler transitions because they signal what should happen. Songs promote curiosity, promote self-regulation, and bridge the gap between being too fearful and too impulsive (4).  Overall, singing helps with executive functioning, alleviate stress, and diminish emotional reactions.

Read: Transition Songs for Young Children: Music Helps With Routine

Some of our favourite songs for toddler transitions include:

The clean-up song:

Brush your teeth

And any lullaby to cue bedtime.

4. Make it a game.

Jumping like a frog to the door, racing to the bath to see who will win, or launching Duplo into the Duplo bin like a basketball make transitions easier. In fact, something as simple as a silly voice can make a chore fun.

5. Find ways to empower.

Because toddlers want to feel in control, they are more likely to cooperate when they feel they have an element of choice. For example, “Do you want to start cleaning up the animals or the MagFormers first?” or, “Should I help you with your shoes of would you like to do it yourself?

6. For bigger transitions, use social stories.

Social stories are stories created by the adult to explain to the child what will happen, what it might feel like and how the child will cope.

You can read more about social stories for parenting toddlers here (it includes examples too).

A final note about easing toddler transitions.

We can do a lot to promote cooperation and ease tensions during transitions. Despite the efficacy of these strategies, there will be times that aren’t so smooth. In those instances, it’s paramount to stay calm and remain consistent.

Additional resources you may find helpful

Front-Loading, Redirection and Connection: 3 strategies for parenting a strong-willed child

Transition Songs for Young Children: Music Helps With Routine

10+ positive parenting tips for difficult toddler behaviour

Why you shouldn’t punish tantrums and what to do instead

How to stop toddler hitting without the use of punishment

Conquer potty training regressions with these tips

When should a toddler stop napping? An expert weighs in

infographic with three tips to ease toddler transitions rooted in positive parenting

  1. ABC song (with sign language alphabet); Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes (Great for learning body parts), Mr. Golden Sun… I’m sure there are plenty more that I used to sing with my older two and now to my youngest.

    1. I’m so, so glad you recommended ABCs with sign language alphabet. I’m going to start that. And, we should get “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes” back into the rotation! Thanks for your comment 🙂

  2. My kids love Johnny Appleseed, ABC’s, Number Rock (Greg & Steve), and most of your basic children’s songs… but their favorite (surprisingly) is You are My Sunshine… my mom sang it to me as she’d put me down for a nap and I have done the same for them. It seems to be very comforting for them 🙂

    1. Love you are my sunshine! When I haven’t sang it for a while and come back to it, I find myself getting teary!

  3. Love this post! We love “head shoulders knees and toes,” “Rockabye Baby,” “twinkle twinkle little star,” and anything by Raffi, but our favorite is “Baby Beluga.”

    1. Oh! Baby Beluga is such a great one. I’m grateful for the reminder of Head and Shoulders. I’ve totally forgotten about it! Will use it the next time we are moving through our repertoire of songs!

  4. Nursery rhymes are so helpful! I love singing clean up clean up everybody everywhere . . . Lol Amelia loves it and it helps to encourage her to clean!

    1. Never would I have imagined 20 + years ago when my brother was watching Barney that one of his songs would become such an integral part of our household! So great it works in your household too, Adele!

  5. Old McDonald has been a life saver for me with my son! Its the song I sang to him in the car to calm him down as an infant. Now, as a 1-year-old, he still loves it.

  6. We are huge fans of singing here too. Such a lifesaver for transitional activities or anything he doesn’t want to do. In fact, I bought the Naturally You Can Sing “This is the Way We Wash a Day” music book which has awesome “chore” songs in it. It’s helped with simple toddler chores and gets him excited to engage in the activity.

    1. Oooh I’ve never heard of this book! Thank you so much for the recommendation! I agree singing has saved us in many moments of frustration 😛

  7. Hi there.. Just wanted to let you know that i have nominate you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. Please check the details on my website! Thank you for inspiring me.. Love reading your posts.. Xoxo

    1. Virigina, that is so incredibly kind of you. I will definitely check out the details ASAP. Thank you very much!

  8. It may be the teacher in me, but we sing all the time! Unfortunately for my son & anyone else who happens to be around, I don’t have the greatest voice. At least my son enjoys singing with me! His favorites are wheels on the bus & Bob Marley!

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