The Fussy Baby Site

How to Help Your Child With Transitions

Routine chart

Does your baby have trouble with everyday transitions, like getting dressed, going into the car seat, or having his diaper changed?

Or does your toddler or preschooler (or older child) have a meltdown every time you ask her to brush her teeth, turn off the TV or put away her toys?

This is extremely common among high need babies and toddlers…and even into the school-aged years.

While we can’t (and wouldn’t want to) magically take away our kids’ passion or intensity, a little more compliance would sure be nice!

This post will offer practical tips for helping our high need, spirited or stong-willed kids – or really, kids of any temperament – deal with transitions!

High Need and Spirited Kids and Transitions

As you may already know, starting as small babies, spirited kids often struggle with transitions.

High need babies are born being more sensitive, more intense and more persistent, and all of these traits can lead to issues with transitioning from one activity or environment to another.

Transitions can involve crying, fussing, whining, hitting, kicking, biting, screaming…or any combination of these!

As babies, these transitions can include:

  • Getting dressed or undressed
  • Getting a diaper changed
  • Stopping or starting a feeding
  • Getting into the car seat
  • Being put to bed, or waking up from sleep (many high need babies wake up crying)

As toddlers and preschoolers, common transitions can include:

  • Getting dressed or undressed
  • Going to bed for naps or nighttime sleep
  • Getting into the car seat
  • Turning off the TV
  • Stopping a favorite game or putting away toys
  • Going to the table or highchair for mealtime
  • Getting ready for bed, or getting ready in the morning
  • Going to or leaving from daycare
  • Going into or out of a shopping cart or stroller

How to Help a High Need Baby with Transitions

When they’re babies, there’s not a lot we can do to change how our baby feels about transitions. However, we can help them by adjusting our own expectations and figuring out ways to minimize their discomfort or frustration. Some ways to do this include:

  • Troubles with getting dressed or undressed or getting a diaper changed: Offer a favorite toy to hold during this time. We had a special toy Sammy could only play with during changing time. For diaper changes, try mastering the art of the standing or crawling diaper change for little movers and shakers!
  • Troubles with the car seat: Try these 1o helpful tips for driving with a fussy or high need baby. Minimize the number of errands or stops you need to make or run errands when your partner can stay at home with your baby.
  • Troubles with having a toy taken away or stopping an activity: Offer an appealing substitute as a distraction. Hand them a toy and use an animated voice to extol the virtues of the new toy or activity.
  • Troubles with going the transition to bedtime/sleep time: Start creating a predictable routine you can follow before each nap and bedtime. Don’t choose activity you think you should choose, choose ones you and your baby actually enjoy. It’s also important to start having a regular bedtime and nap times after about 3-4 months of age.
  • Troubles with transitions in general: The #1 way you can help your high need baby cope with transitions is to establish a routine, both day and night. As already noted, this is important for sleep. However, it’s also important to start having regular times when you play, go outside, eat meals, etc. During the day, expose him to lots of natural light, and at night make the nursery as dark as possible. This will help not only with sleep, but with understanding the regularity and order of daytime activities as well.

How to Help a Spirited Toddler or Preschooler with Transitions

As high need babies get a little older, many continue to struggle with transitions. As our kids start to live out in the world more – by going to daycare, preschool, to friends’ houses, etc. – we can’t avoid or minimize transitions as much as we could when they were babies.

However, whenever possible, we can use the following strategies to help ease the pain of transitions. We can also encourage daycare providers or family members who are with our child regularly to use these strategies as well.

  1. Reward charts. These can be a great tool for all sorts of transitions: for sitting down at the table to eat, to going to bed without a fuss, to turning off the TV when asked.
  2. Wheel of choice. These are handy little tools for helping our kids feel a sense of power and control over their day to day tasks. One of my favorite ways to use these is to create spinnable wheels to decide on the order of certain tasks (e.g., brush teeth, put on PJ’s, etc.). If you’re interested, I’ve written more about the wheel of choice here.
  3. Checklists. Create checklists for various transitions, especially for your morning and bedtime routines. Use pictures for pre-readers. Have them check off or add a sticker to each item as it’s completed.
  4. Give advanced warning. For really small kids, we can simply let them know a minute or so before we’re going to change an activity (e.g., “OK, we’re almost done with the play doh. Next we’re going to go to the park”). For slightly older kids, we can start using a timer to let them know when the next activity will take place. One mom in our group has set her phone to quack like a duck when time’s up!
  5. A list of family rules. For older spirited kids, having your non-negotiable family rules in a place where everyone can see them can really help with transitions. For instance, “If you go over your allotted TV time, that amount will be deducted from tomorrow TV time” (this is the rule in our house!). This may help ease the transition from one activity to another, as your child is very clear on the consequences of his or her actions.
  6. Chore charts. I love the Melissa and Doug wooden chore charts. You can also see my rather crude rendition (above) from when my kids were little! Here’s the most recent version, now that they’re 11 and almost-14.

Chore chart


What to do When a Transition-Related Meltdown Happens

Despite all our planning and best intentions, there will be many times when a transition HAS to happen, and we have to deal with the fallout.

For instance, going into the car seat is a safety issue, so it’s non-negotiable.

Or sometimes, you’ll need to leave a place or activity and there isn’t any room or time to be flexible or give warning.

In these situations, your child may have a meltdown…and this is understandable and okay.

Let your child know you understand that they’re upset and give them a word for their feelings (“I know you’re SO disappointed we need to leave Grandma’s!”).

Sometimes this little bit of empathy can help them start to calm down. 

If this doesn’t happen (which was the usually the case for us), move their attention off the situation by distracting them and physically moving to another area/location.

For more on this, check on my post How Do I Deal With My Spirited Child’s Tantrums?. I also cover my anti-tantrum strategies in detail in my ebook, The Fussy Baby Survival Guide.

Above all, remember to keep your cool and remind yourself, “He’s not giving me a hard time, he’s having a hard time”.

He’s looking to you to see how you’re handling the situation, and will take his cues from you….so staying calm and in control will go a long way towards keeping him calm and better able to navigate transitions in the future.