Three Reasons Why Your Toddler Won’t Wear Pants


Why Toddler won't wear pantsMy toddler won’t wear pants. 

Yup, you read that right, my toddler refuses to wear pants. What’s the obsession with being naked? Why does it always have to happen when we are waiting for someone new to come over? No, I don’t think that she will join the nudist colony. I am a pediatric occupational therapist, and difficulty with clothing is a common symptom that I discuss with parents.

I hear it from moms ALL the time both in my professional practice and among my mom friends. My own preschooler prefers a certain brand of cotton long-john style pajamas, and refuses to get out of them unless its otherwise absolutely going to ruin his day. And when, on occasion, he dresses himself independently, I find out the hard way that he omitted underpants that day. Figures.

So – what’s with this? Are they trying to drive us crazy? Keep us prisoners at home just a little longer than necessary? Wage yet another war in the already crazed morning routine? And, especially in NH, aren’t they cold after the 38th snowstorm and that terrible April Fool’s prank? Please child, let me help you!

There’s a reason your toddler refuses to wear pants.

Some children with disabilities or sensory challenges struggle with textures and how clothing feels against their skin. Other very typical kiddos just struggle with clothing as a part of their normal path of development. At the time of that age-old struggle, we may not think it’s all that important or necessary, but there’s likely some rhyme and reason for the madness! 

  1. Control – They are all tiny dictators in their own way. They want control and they will find a way to get it. Some say that giving them control over something else can help.  Maybe providing choices in clothing will be enough to lend that control. I find that control most often comes in their choices to toilet and eat (these issues can be more difficult to manage). Clothing choice is easy if they’re doing OK with the rest!
  2. Seasons – Will spring ever arrive? The change in seasons and weather-appropriate clothing comes way too fast for us New Englanders! Half the time, Mother Nature can’t figure herself out for more than a few days at a time, and it can be really hard for those little people who are craving the consistency. Let’s face it, the transition from summer to fall is the WORST! When I meet with families, I find so many parents washing their kiddos favorite warm weather t-shirt way past Thanksgiving. Here we will soon come upon the toddlers on the playground refusing to take off their winter armor of heavy coats. Not long ago during an evaluation, I met a preschooler that was still wearing her favorite purple one-piece snowsuit in July. Is a natural consequence appropriate? My neighbor’s 2-year old was outside today in her tank top and bare feet, mid-stand off before heading to the library. She got close enough to the snow bank and changed her mind. When they’re old enough, they can understand – no pants, no school/playground/friends/errands, etc.
  3. Material – Is it a preference for texture? Sometimes there are patterns to look for that can help with narrowing these things down. Does she want to wear long, flowy dresses? Need the compression of a bathing suit? Does he need layers of t-shirts or always need his arms bare? Is it the softness of leggings, or bagginess of sweats that they crave? Are they avoiding that dreaded stiff/constricted waistband of jeans? I know I am! Seriously though – they find ways around it somehow. The grade school boys that I work with have made those basketball-swishy shorts a thing of fashion. It’s when they pull up their socks to their knees and wear them with high tops that I get totally thrown off. For the girls, it’s AWESOME that leisure wear is a thing, and yoga-pants are IN! Yay! There is often a “sensory” component to clothing choices, and we want them to feel good in their bodies. If you look at the adults around us, we have those sensory preferences, too!

Just don’t ask me about dress-up days. Those still get me.

I think for most of our little ones, we need to find them space to let them do their thing. Maybe if they can feel in control in their own way, in their own space that’s safe and protected, they will brave the outside world a little stronger. Someday, those natural social consequences will kick in. I hope we look back on these days and long for those little “problems” with our little people. They might not always look as polished as we hope they do, but maybe they will happily wear pants to their first job interview someday!

If your toddler won’t wear pants and he (and you) need some extra support, maybe it’s time for occupational therapy