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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Frequently Asked Questions: 3 Years

Should I send my child to preschool?

Child development experts recommend that by 3 years of age all children spend time regularly with other kids of the same age. Some children already have this experience through group day care, either in a home setting or at a day care center. Another option for formal interaction is preschool, available in most communities for children between 3 and 5 years old. Preschools help to prepare children for kindergarten and elementary school, as well as providing an opportunity for children to socialize.

Most children are socially and physically ready for preschool around 3 years of age, but every child is different. Here are some things that may help you prepare your child for his preschool experience.

At a minimum, your child should spend some time away from you. Children who have been in day care, had regular babysitters, or who have spent time apart from their parents while attending an organized activity (such as gymnastics or music class) usually go happily into preschool. Children who haven't spent much time away from home may have a harder time separating. If you anticipate any problems, you may want to have your child spend short periods away from you, perhaps with a grandparent or a family friend, in the weeks or months before starting school.

In preschool, your child will learn about sharing with other children, listening and taking turns. Children who already have spent some time in group situations with other toddlers or with siblings at home may better understand these concepts, though most still need help putting them into practice. You may want to spend some time reinforcing these concepts. In preschool, your child will need to sit quietly in a group, such as during story time, for at least a few minutes.

Most preschools require that children be toilet trained; ask about their specific toileting requirements. Your child should also be able to wash his hands, and ask for help when he needs it. If it is necessary that he be toilet trained, allow plenty of time to complete the training process before school starts. Although you may be anxious for your child to attend preschool, do not try to hurry toilet training simply to get him into preschool earlier. In fact, hurrying this process may make the training process longer and more difficult.

For the most part, if your child seems to enjoy being around other kids and likes to explore new ideas and projects, he should have a successful preschool experience.

My child has an imaginary friend. Should I be concerned?

It is completely normal for your child to have an imaginary friend or even an imaginary brother or sister. Around their second birthday, children often begin to engage in pretend play. This can mean anything from having an imaginary friend, to telling fanciful stories, to building a fantasy world out of sheets and pillows under the dining room table. Pretending is developmentally important for young children. Through pretend play, they are able to learn about the world around them and explore their feelings and emotions.

Imaginary friends also give children a chance to be in charge. Your child doesn't yet control very much of her own life, but you may notice that she enjoys telling her imaginary friend what to do and when to do it! She may also enjoy instructing her imaginary friend (doll or teddy bear) to fasten her seat belt, eat her vegetables or take a nap. Her words, in fact, may sound very familiar to you. This kind of play helps your child to feel in control of at least some parts of her environment.

Pretend play will ultimately help your child develop into a healthy, creative little girl or boy. Most children lose interest in their imaginary friends after a few months. In the meantime, it's best to treat your child's "friend" as part of the family — set a place for her at the table, or tuck her in at night if your child wishes. However, if your child stops playing with her real friends or consistently misbehaves and blames it on her imaginary friend, contact your doctor for advice.

My child shows no interest in toilet training. What should I do?

First and foremost, you should try not to worry. Every child is ready for toilet training at a different time. Trying to hurry the process along will not work and will end up being frustrating for both you and your child. No one can "force" a child of any age to use the potty. It's best to take your cues from your child and work with him on his timetable.

Keep your eye out for certain signs that your son may be ready for toilet training:

  • Understanding the words used with toileting
  • Understanding how to use the potty and even wanting to sit on it
  • Recognizing when he has to go, and being able to let you know in some way that he needs to
  • Asking to be changed frequently
  • Trying to hold urine or bowel movements; for example, being dry for two to three hours at a time during the day and having a relatively predictable pattern of bowel movements (for example, shortly after meals)

When he asks to be changed, don't necessarily drop everything and do it right away. Tell him you'll help him do it as soon as you can. Having a dirty diaper may make him uncomfortable and can help reinforce independent toileting. He may be interested in using a potty seat or the toilet, or ask to use training pants or "big-boy" underwear. He should be willing and able to follow directions, and able to get himself undressed.

When you begin to see the signs mentioned above, start potty training but be patient and let your child determine the pace. It typically can take several weeks or even months for a child to learn to use the toilet correctly and regularly.

The most important thing to remember is to stay positive. Take books out of the library about using the potty, read them together, and talk about using the toilet in a positive light. Make using the potty a pleasant experience, not one your child will want to avoid. When he shows progress, be sure to encourage and praise him repeatedly. Give rewards for success, and never punish or reprimand, even when there are accidents. Be prepared for a few setbacks. Some children use the potty for a while and then seem to lose all interest. Do not worry. He will regain interest when he is ready and will be toilet trained before you know it!

Last updated March 15, 2007




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