When Your Toddler is Stalling

Some of the fondest memories I have from my oldest daughter’s toddler years are the almost daily visits we’d make to our neighbor’s vegetable garden a short distance from our home. As we’d meander down the road, my tiny tour director would guide us to stop along the way and smell jasmine, pick up rocks and leaves, notice shadows, listen to birds, savor a taste of honeysuckle.

After several minutes, we’d finally enter our neighbor’s garden through her creaky metal gate and linger there, relishing small samples of her basil leaves, green beans and crunchy snap peas. Invariably, this trip would take the whole morning, because we were inhabiting an alternate time zone: toddler time.

In toddler time we’re fully present each moment, yet blissfully ignorant of the moments passing. Toddler time is all the time in the world.

But sometimes our young children can seem to intentionally slow down and stall in a manner that can drive even the most patient parent batty. A parent asked about this phenomenon in an online parenting discussion group and found my response helpful, so I thought I’d share it here:

CARA:  My daughter is 2.75 years old (32 months) and has started taking forever to do things. How can I handle this respectfully? For example, when it’s time for her nap she will walk so slowly, stop at every chance (“What’s this dot on the floor; I need a different toy; I’m thirsty (then won’t drink water)…). She seems to be doing this with most activities- getting ready to eat, washing hands, cleaning up, diaper changes and getting dressed, going to nap, etc. I give her plenty of time and warnings but I can’t wait forever! This is especially frustrating when we are trying to get somewhere and she suddenly becomes a snail. Thanks!

Other parents offered C some valid suggestions…

TAMMY:  Do you have lots of one-on-one special time together? She may be asking for more attention?

MELANIE:  I try to acknowledge what they see from their world. They are exploring and discovering. Remember they have no concept of time. Start things a few minutes earlier. For example, if stalling before nap, start 5-10 minutes earlier. Best case you will have extra snuggle time, and that is a win-win for everyone.

Then I chimed in…

ME:  I have a couple of thoughts, Cara. She is definitely exploring her power in these situations… and I imagine she senses your annoyance, which makes this even more of an interesting experiment for her. So, I would differentiate for yourself between the times it doesn’t matter to you and the times when you don’t want to wait for her. When it’s something you don’t mind waiting for, totally let it go… and say something like, “Just let me know when you’re ready (to change her diaper, get dressed, take a bath, etc.), I’ll be here with my book (or in the kitchen, etc.)” Or you could decide to tag along with her while she dawdles, while letting go of your agenda completely. Either way, you will be very relaxed waiting, which will disempower the stalling and also give her the chance to be the one to say “I’m ready”.

Then when she is obviously stalling…and you don’t feel relaxed about it, give her a helping hand. “You are having difficulties making it to the bedroom, shall we hold hands and walk together or do you want me to swoop you up in my arms?” If she says no, no, no, I would either say, “Okay, then I’m making the choice to swoop with you”…and do it confidently, or call her bluff and say, “Okay, then I’ll wait for you in the bedroom. Looking forward to our book if you can get there in time.” If she says “look at the spot, or I’m thirsty”, etc., you might reply, “We won’t be doing that now because it’s bedtime, but please show me the spot when you wake up. I’ll look forward to seeing it”.

In short, be confident, unruffled and unafraid to insist and follow-through if you need to. Sometimes children need to know that we care enough to insist. This is quality time.

CARA:  Whenever she is taking a long time to do something and I don’t need her to go faster, I’ll say exactly what you said (“I’ll be doing xyz. Let me know when you’re ready”) and she actually is ready faster than I expect. It’s just worse when we don’t have a ton of time to wait (even if I allow an extra 10-15 min) and she definitely knows that I want her to move faster. Like bedtime. Ugh! I really think that I just need to be firm and confident (like you said) and not allow her to let it take over an hour. Thanks for confirming my thoughts!

ME:  Yes! She is probing for a leader in those situations, so be that loving person she needs.

Then another mom, M, joined the discussion and shared insights…

MEG:  The concepts you explained in your answer above have been some of the most helpful points I have gained from your posts here and on your blog. I see that many of us who aim for “gentle parenting” end up, in our quest to be gentle, as passive and permissive instead. We let ourselves get annoyed and our kids get an unhealthy sense of too much power, then they spin out of control. Then we end up turning to authoritarian, punitive responses out of our frustration. This is what I love so much about the RIE approach of firm, empathetic limits. It allows us to bypass permissive and authoritarian parenting and be the confident yet kind leaders our kids need.

Also I have a side question–how would you apply that approach to an older child that you can’t just “swoop up”? I usually ask my olders (5 and 7)–“Would you like to walk by yourself or shall I escort you?” Is there any other approach that can be used?

ME:  “Escorting” sounds good. All that really matters is your confident attitude, which means facing the resistance and other feelings that come your way with fearlessness, and conviction in your leadership.

MEG:  Thanks for the input. I have seen that it’s not that the child needs to be “forced” into doing something, it’s more that she needs to see that the parent is calmly taking the reins. So many times they are simply, through their behavior begging for a limit!


For more, please check out my book

No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame (now available on Audio!)

(Photo by Vinamra Agrawal on Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Perfect timing! My son is nearly 3 and has lately turned into such a dawdler. Any transition seems very difficult for him. Thank you for these suggestions (and confirmations!) for treating him respectfully and also treating myself respectfully!

    1. Yes! A hugely important element to this, Vicki: “…and also treating myself respectfully” Because we really can’t do one without the other.

  2. Here’s a technique: “You seem to be having a hard time getting into the car seat on your own. Do you want to do it yourself?”
    “Yes” (or no answer–just more dawdling)
    “OK, well we have to leave now. if you can’t get in ten seconds, I will do it for you.”
    (The first time, they will see if you mean it, but after than they do it themselves.)

    1. With great respect, Rick, that sounds too threatening: “If you can’t get in in ten seconds, I will do it for you.” I would leave out the “ten seconds” part entirely, and say “I’ll help you” (and mean it) rather than “I’ll do it for you.”

      1. Corinne Wilson says:

        Do you have a post you could point me to about threatening the child with counting etc?…I instinctively don’t like threats, but i’d love to hear why counting or other seemingly harmless threats are so negative.

      2. What do you do when your child refuses your help as well.
        Getting my son ( 2yrs ) into his car seat is one of the most frustrating things that I’ve had to deal with.
        Every time we get into the van he starts running around and sitting on different seats. I’ve tried ; ” you can get in yourself or I can help you, what do you choose?” or have him stand beside the van and say ” let me know when you are ready to get in your car seat. I try go give myself 30 mins extra time in the mornings so that I’m not rushing him. I say things like ” I see that you are frustrated and that you are having a hard time getting in your seat”
        But i think my biggest frustration is that I feel completely powerless. I feel like we come to the point where there is nothing I can do. He is a big boy and there is no way that I can place him in his car seat with out him physically fighting.
        I don’t like saying things like ” there will be consequences” But I honestly don’t know what else to do.
        Some feedback would be great.

        1. My daughter also dawdles when getting into her car seat. I give her the option of getting into the car seat in 5-seconds (while I count aloud to 5) or mommy putting her in. When I start counting, she quickly jumps into her seat, and is ready to be buckled up by the time I say 5.

          There has only been 2 incidents where I had to pick her up and put her in. She protested, but I explained to her that she made the choice not to get into her seat and that mommy will have to help her this time. Next time, she can decide if she wants to go into the car seat by herself.

  3. What am awesome exchange. I’m sharing. My second son is a staller. I love the point that parents should choose whether they are ok to wait or not. I think we often think we need to react the same way every time, no matter what. Setting boundaries is about setting what we are comfortable with and what we will do about it. No need to give our punish, just act. Enjoy the slower pace sometimes. Move along at others. Makes sense.

    1. Thanks, Andy! Yes, this is a key point: “Setting boundaries is about setting what we are comfortable with…”

  4. Thanks for the timely post. My son is a dawdler/shopper when it comes to get into his carseat. This post reminds me to never get beyond that point of annoyance to enforce limits with empathy and confidence.

  5. My daughter is two months shy of three years old and we have been battleing this for a couple of months now with bedtime, and more recently with getting ready in the morning to go to daycare. Thanks for your suggestions. I’ll try to work on it tomorrow night.

  6. Thank you Janet for another timely post! My lil one just turned 3 Sunday and she too has become quite the dawdler as of late. Thank you for right words to say. Also relate to M’s comment as well of going from passive/permissive to punative. So glad you included that. It was good example too. Thanks again!

    1. Thanks, Sherra! Yes, I loved M’s comments…very insightful.

  7. Thanks so much for sharing this helpful exchange. I’m glad it adressed older children too, as my four year old can be quite the dawdler sometimes. Like Andy said above, knowing that I can choose how to react depending on the circumstances really bolsters my confidence.

    1. I’m so glad, Francine, because that’s exactly what I aim to do…bolster your confidence. Confidence in yourself and in your child is extremely important in these situations.

  8. Again perfect timing! How is this possible! Every time I take a moment and think about, ‘ what’s happening now, what is the best thing for me to do or am I doing the right thing”‘ along comes a blog. My 2,8 year old son is currently doing this too.

    Life is indeed magical.

    Thanks Janet.

  9. Great to hear from the parents of just three year olds that this is a typicaly stage of development! I am about to have three year old here at my house! I will be on the lookout for the dawdling and consider my role in it

  10. Lovely.

    On another note, I sure wish you gave us the option to *print*- I love to print these up and take them on the subway, but I get the entire page instead of just the content.

    Which I love! And thank you for!

    1. Thank you so much, Mark! Wish I knew how to change the printing option here… Hmmm…maybe I’ll ask my webmaster to take a look at that.

  11. Christine says:

    Ugh. I always see these after the fact lol
    I was having such a difficult time with my boy and his making up all kinds of excuses to not to go bed, brush his teeth, eat, blah blah blah whatever, and then I started doing exactly what she said in the article. I give him a choice, though, without actually giving him a choice. It’s like, “we can either go to bed and read a story, or you can go to bed by yourself and I’ll just turn off the lights.” Either way, into bed he goes. And it just keeps going like that, with his options in my favor.

  12. These are wonderful suggestions. The problem I sometimes run into is how to enforce the “I’ll help you” part without it turning into a physical confrontation. My daughter is five and when she digs her heels in, I can no longer easily swoop her up. I don’t want to just haul on her arm or try to physically overpower her, but I’m not sure what “escort her” would actually look like if she is actively resisting. Any thoughts?

    1. Kate, you might want to consider the alternate plan I suggested, “Okay, I’ll be waiting by the car” (or whatever). In your mind you will be saying, “ho-hum, la-de-da”.

  13. I love this post and have found these techniques amazingly helpful. I do have some questions, though. Sometimes the “do you want to walk by yourself or should I carry you?” feels a little like a threat (though I, of course don’t mean it that way.) My 2.5yo daughter sometimes won’t pick, or will answer with some form of ‘no’, then when I go to pick her up (calmly, after acknowledging her non/decision), she will suddenly dart towards the destination saying ‘I want to walk by myself!’. Is this ok? I’ve tried offering options that assume she wants to go (stomping or hopping?), which sometimes works, but the same dynamic arises if she doesn’t choose either option. also, what should my response be if she counters with another option? i usually say “oh, you want to negotiate?” and then let her know whether the third option is acceptable or not. other ideas? thanks!

    1. Mary – the way you are handling this sounds fine to me… I wouldn’t over-think it. If you worry that giving her reasonable options is a threat, you will likely be too tentative in your response. Yes, of course, our tone can make something into a threat, or not. So I recommend being matter-of-fact, upbeat, relaxed and confident. This can be easy as long as we don’t wait until we’re annoyed or angry. If you are deciding to escort her and she then changes her mind and decides to walk herself, that’s perfectly fine.

  14. One other question: what about when the activity she is resisting is something more complicated that just going somewhere? I feel completely comfortable picking my daughter up and carrying her somewhere, and I know you’ve talked about putting children in their carseat when they are resisting. But, on the rare occasions when she refuses to get dressed or brush her teeth, for example, I haven’t felt comfortable doing those activities to her when she is resisting. Having the calm, confident, unruffled attitude you recommend has decreased those occasions, but it hasn’t eliminated them entirely…Advice?

    1. Mary – unlike other gentle discipline advisers, I have no problem giving an honest answer/consequence like, “I’m getting tired and I don’t think we’ll have time for a book if you can’t brush your teeth very soon. Please let me know what I can do to help”.

      Here’s my post on “consequences”: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2013/07/truths-about-consequences/

  15. I agree with this approach and love what you said. “I have seen that it’s not that the child needs to be “forced” into doing something, it’s more that she needs to see that the parent is calmly taking the reins. So many times they are simply, through their behavior begging for a limit!”

  16. Catherine says:

    This is the exact issue that has been driving me batty for the past couple of weeks, although there are so many other toddler behaviors I’m patient with! My son is not quite 2. He will yell “Self!” As in “I will get into the carseat/ wash my hands/ climb the stairs by myself”…and then he stands in place doing nothing. If I offer two choices that involve me, of I I offer the “do you choose to do it yourself or for me to help you” choice, he gets upset. As Mary said above, he is refusing to choose one of my options. Recently, I have been choosing for him, but this means a bit of a physical struggles as I forcibly put him into his carseat, or hold him to wash his hands, or put his pants on him. Similar concept to “swooping him up” but feels more aggressive to me. Any other advice, or do you think I’m on the right track?

    (In care your curious, the hand-washing issue is when I drop him off at daycare. Before I leave I am responsible for seeing that he places his lunch box when it belongs and that he washes his hands.)

    I’m noticing that these are all transition situations. Don’t know if that affects management of them or not. I know he is basically happy to go to “school” and he doesn’t act upset about saying goodbye to me (or being in the cars eat, or having his hands soapy and wet)so its not avoidance for the sake of avoidance of it, its either a testing behavior or something about transitions being difficult – or likely both!

    1. I love that he says, “self”, Catherine. I would totally respond to what he is saying. “You’re saying you want to get into the car seat yourself. Cool. What will you do first? Can you climb into the car by yourself? Now how about getting into your seat? Okay, then would you like to fasten the seat belt, or should I do it?”, etc.

  17. Nicole Siciliano says:

    Hello, Janet! I love this blog post and had to share my epiphany in this area. I have worked respectfully with children for some time now, but with my own I often found myself getting more impatient about the dawdling. Especially when we needed to be out the door. Over time, I realized most of the problem was me waiting until too late and then rushing. I am horrible with time, often rushing, and sometimes late (I have made huge improvements here!). As a result, I was making my toddler, preschooler, etc. aged-child rush, which isn’t too effective, especially in a respectful way. I now try and leave what I consider a huge window of time to get ready for things. Even now with my 6 year old, we start the bed time routine at least an hour before I want lights out so that there is built in time for dawdling, that last trip to the potty, one more drink, an extra chapter, etc. (all within boundaries, too, of course). And it’s made me much more timely in the process!

    1. Yes! Building “stalling time” into the schedule is a wonderful idea. Less stressful for both of you. Thanks and HELLO, Nicole!

  18. Hi Janet, I have recently found your blog and am new to RIE, but everything I read feels so right. I have a 2 1/2 year old and a 9 month old and have been following RIE with the baby for the last few months but am struggling to incorporate it with my toddler. The main issue I have is that my husband and I aren’t on the same page when it comes to parenting. He isn’t great with acknowledging his feelings and often tells him he shouldn’t feel scared/angry etc. He wants to play with our toddler and he insitigates the games and does a fair bit of directing aswell. I have tried to gently tell him about both issues, but it doesn’t really work. He is a great dad and spends a lot of time with toddler and baby, but he has never been interested in taking in any advice in regards of parenting. How will it work if I do RIE and he doesn’t? Kinds Regards Emma

  19. Regarding how physical to get with the “helping” – our 4yo ASKS us to “Drag me to the bathroom!” some nights when it’s time to brush her teeth – ever since I got frustrated enough to do that with her one night! Sometimes it seems that she wants the reassurance that we are physically stronger than she is. Even though she may protest at the time, afterwards she almost seems relieved and is very loving and affectionate. I’ve noticed that she often creates a situation where I have to take charge of her when I’ve been working all day, or spending a lot of time with her sister (who has to attend hospital a lot). So really she just wants some reassurance, and if I can remind myself that that’s her motivation, then I can do what we both need with empathy and love. I just hope this phase passes before she grows too heavy!

  20. I’ve shared this post with some my students’ families because holiday break is here with its changing schedules and increased opportunities for encounters like this! Thanks Janet.

  21. My son is now 4, and I think we started having trouble with bedtime once his sister was born (6 months ago) and I am usually doing bedtime on my own with 2 kids. I know that from his perspective, what was once an easy and enjoyable time has turned into a rushed, hectic, mama-going-crazy time. No doubt he wants more attention, and enjoys getting a rise out of me. However, I find it increasingly difficult to withhold my frustration, and end up saying all sorts of silly things that I don’t really mean and immediately regret. (Silly threats). I think I need to write some of these phrases down on notecards to practice for a few weeks. I am having a really hard time putting this into practice. Any tips on how to make this more manageable?

  22. Jessie Harrold says:

    Thank-you for this post – a friend directed me here when I expressed that I was struggling with my 2 1/2 year old daughter’s bedtime stalling.

    I usually do everything that you have suggested – offering choices, offering to wait in the next room until she’s ready etc… but my frustration is that even though normally she works with reason and “if – then” statements very well, it’s like she completely loses her ability to think through consequences when she’s stalling. For example, I might say we can read this bedtime story, or mommy will go downstairs and you can call me when you’re ready to read, to which she will respond no to both choices and start crying or pulling at me, saying Mommy don’t leave. “Mommy would like to stay and read you a bedtime story.” “No.”

    And on it goes! Putting her to bed often takes at least two hours, and I am running out of creativity when it comes to offering her firm but gentle guidance. Do you have any thoughts about what to do when a child is unresponsive, refuses or is seemingly unable to process what you’re offering? (I’ll note that in most other stalling-related scenarios – i.e.: getting into the car, getting out of the house, she responds pretty well to these techniques).

  23. just stumbled on your blog not too long ago and after reading a handful of articles, it has changed the way my husband and i parent already (our mantra is “unruffled”!), which in turn effects our amazing 2 year old. you are changing lives! thank you. i just want to say that when you advise with literal tools – like literally the words to say (like you do in this article), it is SO SO helpful. i often feel like i have the theoretical knowledge of gentle parenting in my head and heart, but i don’t always have the practical ability to translate them into real life moments, like the words. so again, thank you.

  24. Ruth Reynolds says:

    What if you toddler is stalling before nap time by acting like they need to use the potty? How would you handle that?

    Today, my toddler went pee on the potty before nap! yay! But then wanted to keep doing stories and songs while sitting on the potty. I would ask if she needed to poop, and she would she “yes” and when I tried putting the diaper on, try to keep me from doing it. I’m trying to set a firm limit on books and songs before nap time because I realized that I let it go on and on and on. I want to start meaning it when I say “last one.” I did give her an extra story and song after going pee. We probably sat another 5 minutes. But we were about 30 minutes past nap time, and felt it was time to move on.

    I want to set a firm limit on books and songs to stop the stalling but want to respect her if she needs to go or try to potty.

  25. Jennifer Wyman says:

    I have to say THANK YOU for this blog post. I run a daycare and have seen this phenomenon many times. I receive multiple questions every year about this very issue. I have printed off this blog post and will be handing it out to all of the daycare parents this week!

    1. You’re so welcome, Jennifer. Thank you for the kind shout-out!

  26. What about explaining consequences when they’re stalling for bedtime (for example). My daughter will ask endless times to go potty and I would never refuse to put her on. Sometimes (when I know she just went) I will say “sure, you can go potty again but then we can’t sing together as long as we normally do”. Or if she’s unable to settle down once in bed, I’ll say, I can’t seem to help you relax and settle down. I tried with reading you stories and singing to you. Did you want to tuck yourself in instead?

    Or is this manipulative?

    Thank you!

  27. I’ve been reading your book and listening to the podcasts, it’s been very helpful in many areas! What do you do when your child is super strong and the “ok I’ll help you do ____” turns into a 20 minute tear (her) and sweat (me) filled wrestling match..or it doesn’t work at all because I physically can’t get her diaper on, or her in the carseat etc. Sometimes the “when you are ready I’ll be here, or I’ll come back” approach works really well, but lately she’s been testing and when she says she’s ready, she decides she’s not again and it’s 5 “when you’re ready’s” before her diaper is changed/teeth are brushed/car seat is buckled etc (or I’ll then give the option to help her and then it’s a 20 minute tear filled wrestling match). Our biggest struggle with this is bedtime…she’s a great sleeper once she’s finally tucked in, but it’s sometimes two hours to get there! Thanks!

  28. Stephanie Younis says:

    We have a 2 year old son and just recently had a new baby. We used to be pretty easy-going with nap time and bed time and just put him down whenever he seemed tired. This worked great and he would always get enough sleep. Now, I’m guessing he feels like he needs more attention and is dragging out the bedtime ritual to an hour plus and not sleeping well – then being tired all the time… I’ve tried establishing s stricter routine, and even putying him to sleep in the pack and play when he is obviously just playing and cuddling and refusing to sleep. Now he can climb out of the pack and play and I am at a loss for what to do when je won’t cooperate with sleep. If I leave the room, he will follow. bMe placing him back down is a fun game. I’m so frusturerated!

  29. I am not sure what to do when my 4 year old in essence”holds me hostage”. He will get upset about something and just sit on the floor. He won’t talk to me or show me what he is upset about. I acknowledge his feelings of anger or frustration. If I try to take his hand and try to “help” him walk with me downstairs, he will resist. He would sit there forever until I pick him up. I should say he also has Apraxia so his speech is not very good.

    1. Definitely don’t let him hold you hostage. 🙂 Fully accept his feelings while carrying on with what you need to do. If you need him to go somewhere with you, pick him up right away. Don’t wait. If you don’t need him to move, you can move away to do whatever. In other words, normalize this situation for yourself and for him. Sometimes he will fall apart and be paralyzed for a bit and then after a period of time he will feel better. Let this be.

  30. I already do many of the things mentioned in article and comments. The problem is after I have “swooped” or “helped” my son. He cannot let go of his original want/request. He will continue to tantrum or repeat for 30 or more minutes. For example, if he delayed in brushing teeth and there was no time for a bedtime book. He will then scream, fight, yell, and repeat about the book. Or if he didn’t want to get into the shopping cart at the store, he will scream the entire time shopping up to 45 minutes or more even the car ride home. I have acknowledged “you didn’t want to get in the cart this time” and carried on with my shopping unruffled. Choices often worsen the situation and he won’t pick; then I pick and he continues fussing about the first choice for a long time. Basically, I’m not sure how to handle the after effects. Any help or advice is appreciated!

  31. Thanks for the great insight here. I have been following this advice for a while now with my 2 (+4mo) year old but one thing that comes up that’s not mentioned here is a “do-over” request. Sometimes when my son won’t make a decision or is stalling I will confidently make one for him, but then he screams and crys and wants to do it again himself. For example, if he won’t walk into the garage to get into the car, I first try giving him “fun” suggestions like “why don’t you try hopping in the garage”, then I let him know it’s time to go so he can either walk in now, or I will come pick him up and help him get in. When he continues to stall I will say “ok it looks like you are having trouble walking in so I’m going to pick you up”, and then I do. He throws a fit and squirms out of my arms and runs back to the door to walk in by himself. He goes out the door then immediately walks back into the garage as long as I don’t touch him or help in any way. It’s like he can’t progress with anything until he is allowed a do-over. The same happens with bedtime, teeth brushing, finishing breakfast, getting dressed, etc.
    This has happed before with getting in the car seat and I told him he could try again tomorrow but we were done with the car seat today, but obviously this is easier to stick to since he can’t squirm out of the car seat by himself or even open the car door.
    Do you have any advice on how to gently hold a limit when a toddler try’s to force a do-over?

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