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Toddler Tips

Dealing with the Mess

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 19 No. 1, January-February 2002, p. 21

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.


I have been happily nursing my first baby for over a year, and I believe that people are more important than things. Thus, I often ignored household chores, simplified my cooking routines, and asked friends and relatives for help around the house so that I could concentrate on nursing and caring for my baby. However, now that my son is a toddler, I still find I am busy nursing and meeting his needs during the day with little time to attend to household chores. My house still looks messy and I am beginning to feel embarrassed that things seem to be getting worse rather than better. How have other mothers been able to balance the needs of their toddlers with keeping up with housework and finding time for themselves?


You should be commended for putting the most important thing in life first...your family. I too have the same set of priorities but I have found as my son (almost three) has gotten older, I've been able to get more done around the house. First of all, I prioritize. If I can at least sweep the floor, pick up loose toys, make the bed and do the dishes once per day, my home feels fairly tidy. Second, when I cook, I try to cook double meals, freezing half so that there are quick and easy meals for busy days. Third, I involve my child. We cook together, he takes the clothing out of the washer and hands it to me for the dryer, we sweep and mop together, and he "helps" me make the bed. He will often put away his toys. He even carries in rather heavy grocery bags. True, it takes longer, but at least there is some work done and I know I'm creating a cooperative work environment for the future. Fourth, I've simplified and organized. I've put away a lot of toys (less cleanup) and rid my home, as much as possible, of items that we don't need or use. I'm perpetually evaluating what I own to see if we still need it. I've tried to find a "place for everything." It really makes tidying up so much faster. If I find myself putting things "just anywhere" I evaluate where I can find a permanent home for them. I've found that one hour spent organizing can save 100 hours later on. Fifth, I acknowledge that I need help. I have someone come to clean once every other week and I've hired a mother's helper for two to three hours once per week. I can't believe how much I can accomplish in that short time. I've also asked my husband for help. Even though I'm at home all day, I can't get a lot of tasks done. He has his specific two or three "chores" and he does them faithfully. I've found that not having to worry about a few of the many daily tasks really takes a load off my mind. Finally, I accept the fact that my home will never be on the cover of House Beautiful. I try to set reasonable expectations for myself and don't fret when I can't meet them.

Jenny K.


Members of La Leche League of Danvers/Hamilton, Massachusetts, USA brainstormed the following ideas at a recent meeting. Balancing the needs of family members really is a big challenge when there are small children or babies around your home. Here are some suggestions to help you find ways to do housework, cook, or tend to yourself.

Break down jobs into very small, manageable parts. Try cleaning a bathroom sink and mirror one day, and sweeping the floor and swishing the toilet the next. If you time how long it takes to do certain tasks you may be surprised. It only takes two or three minutes to unload the dishwasher, make the bed, or wipe off a table. Your toddler can wait in a safe place like a high chair, stroller (push-chair), or crib nearby so you can move quickly to finish the task. If your toddler is unhappy about this you can remind yourself that it is only for a few minutes. You could also set a timer for a short time to spend working on household chores. Do as much as you can in 10 or 15 minutes and then stop to play with your child. Some toddlers like to ride in a sling or backpack and you could accomplish vacuuming or cooking this way. Planning ahead what you want to eat for dinner is very helpful. Do this before you grocery shop and then write down your plan on a calendar. If you have the ingredients on hand and can start preparation earlier in the day, it will cut down on the energy needed for those days when you have run out of gas and ideas by late afternoon. Crockpots work well for many families.

One other idea is to listen to a radio or CD player while you are working or playing. Some have settings so you can listen to television stations as well. Your mood may be lifted by your favorite music or by hearing a talk show interview. If you are lucky enough to have a friend who has a child of about the same age, you could take turns having them play at each other's homes. While at your house you could spend a little time doing a few preplanned things while the other mother minds the children, then alternate to her house. A responsible older child who is a friend or neighbor might also like to be a mother's helper and play with your toddler while you make dinner or take a break.

La Leche League of Danvers/Hamilton Group


It is amazing how fast a day can fly by when we have toddlers! Good for you for persisting in putting people before things. I have found using the Flylady system has decluttered and simplified my home to the point that I can have it company-ready in ten minutes flat, and maintained in about twenty minutes per day. For further information, go to The basic premise of the system is that we are kept so busy cleaning because we are maintaining clutter. Once we get rid of all the extra junk in our houses, we can implement short daily routines to keep it easily under control. There are morning and evening routines (like straightening up before bed, and getting fully dressed every morning), a theme to each day (i.e., Thursdays are errand days) and rotating weekly zones for deeper cleaning. Flylady will email you reminders of routines, themes, and zones, special "missions" and testimonials from her 50,000 "Flybabies." It almost feels like a club, and you can start wherever you are. I did all the decluttering before my son was fully mobile, and now I am able to do my cleaning in short bursts with my son in a backpack.

One other sanity-saver: I have a mother's helper who comes to watch my son for two hours each week, while I am at home. I use at least half of this time for myself, but it also comes in handy for big cleaning jobs.

Lynn C.


Many times since my daughter was born two-and-a-half years ago, I have wished for an attitude of indifference toward our kitchen floor, but such a blessing has evaded me. Here are a few ideas that have helped to keep our house reasonably clean (maybe not good enough for barefoot across the kitchen floor, but good enough for socks). I keep cleaning supplies where they will be used. For example, I keep sponges and cleaners in a bucket in the bathroom, old cloth diapers (for the floor) in a kitchen drawer, a carpet sweeper beneath the living room sofa, and brooms in strategic corners. Having supplies close at hand makes it possible to seize odd moments for cleaning. If you have two of everything, your toddler will love "helping."

Invest in several laundry baskets. A mother-in-constant-motion can never have too many. We have one or more in every room and use them for toys, books, clothes, and clutter. Once or twice a week, I go through the house with an empty basket and fill it with items that are out of place. Then, over the next day or so, as I am able, I ferry them to their rightful homes. Give away or pack up what you don't need right now. Before our second child was born, we stored many of our adult trappings in the attic. We also started to keep a big box handy for gathering items to give to charity. Fewer things around mean less to keep clean.

Enlist help! Can you afford a cleaning service once a month to do the big jobs (the ones you can't do on a here-and-there-toddler-around-your-knee basis)? Are there relatively easy tasks that your husband can incorporate into his daily routine? My husband makes the bed and cleans the supper dishes. I found that, with intermittent tasks such as trash take-out, he needed constant reminders. Besides, I like to take out the trash on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. It's a mini-vacation. Resign yourself to never being caught up with the laundry. Wash and dry and fold as you can. Never iron, except maybe for holidays.

Finally, personal time is highly necessary to smooth mothering and housekeeping. As much as possible, I never use my children's nap times for housework. I do not get nearly the amount of quiet, productive, personal time that I crave, but even just 20 minutes a day makes me a far nicer person than I would be without it.

The balance between mothering, housework, and personal time has, of course, become more difficult since my second child was born four months ago, but fortunately I am very nearsighted. When things get really bad, I take off my glasses.

Ellyn M.


First of all, I think you are absolutely right. People are more important than things! I, however, have always been used to a very tidy house, and mothering my two-year-old daughter forces me to deal with conflicting desires every day. Do I finish the dishes or do I sit down and read a story when she asks me? It's a little easier for me to put things into perspective when I talk to my parents, who are nearly empty nesters after 30 years of raising children. They say the house is so quiet, neat, and clean now-and boring! They miss having the excitement of children around, and messes come with the territory. I know my daughter will be heading off to school before I know it, and I want to enjoy her while she is with me. That said, when you are home all day with a toddler, things can get pretty messy!

One thing that has helped me is an anonymous quote I was given that says, "I have to remember that I am a homemaker, not a housekeeper." That helped me think about things in a new way. What needs to be done around the house for it to feel like a home for my family? When I looked at it that way, several "necessities" fell by the wayside: elaborate meal planning and cooking (never my strong suit anyway), perfectly pressed clothes, dusting, and constant picking up. For me to be happy and feel that I am providing a good home for my family, I only need to do a few things. I clean the bathroom as needed, since we only have one and I spend a lot of time in there supervising baths and potty time. We have a toy basket in every room in the house, so Lindsey can play near me wherever I happen to be. At night before bed, I go through the house with her, putting things in baskets. It only takes 10 minutes, and I feel much better if the house is tidy when we all get up in the morning. I cook extremely simple meals, and Lindsey writes on a chalkboard I have hanging in the kitchen or colors at the table while I work so we can talk. Sheets are changed when I think about it, every two weeks or so. My husband shares laundry duties with me so I don't get overwhelmed by it. Lindsey also loves to help with laundry! You'd be amazed at what toddlers can do if you are patient with them. I vacuum the floor in the main playroom frequently since we are down on that floor all the time, but I don't worry about the rest of the house. Since we have no dishwasher, I do the dishes every night out of necessity, but if my daughter comes to me wanting to play, I turn the water off and go play with her. Dishes keep. When company comes, I clean up the living room, check the bathroom, and close all the other doors!

I am constantly revising my expectations of myself as I grow into this job of mothering. I am very selfish about "me time." My daughter, thankfully, seems to do very well with an early bedtime of eight o'clock, so my husband and I have a good two hours to ourselves each night. I use that time to read, write letters, or work on my quilts and other projects. We don't "work" for more than 30 minutes after bedtime. If I haven't finished tidying up by 8:30, it just doesn't get done-my husband and I are more important.

I think you definitely have your priorities in line. Good luck to you as you figure out the bare minimum you need to do around the house to be a homemaker for your family!

Colleen N.


I understand your desire to put people first. It's been a challenge for me to keep up with the responsibilities of our home while at the same time enjoying my family and nurturing myself.

One of the most helpful things that I learned from other busy mothers was the power of habit. Several months ago I sat down and set up a housekeeping schedule for myself. I knew that I wanted the majority of my house cleaned and tidied at least once a week. I divided those tasks into manageable chunks over a Monday through Friday schedule. For example: Tuesdays are set aside for paying bills and cleaning the living room; Thursdays are for scrubbing the bathroom. Once I reached the point where the routine was a habit, I did not have to think very hard to figure out what needed to get done on any given day when a break in the action presented itself. It has become incredibly freeing to be able to say, "The house is done" for that day. It has also been a comfort to know that if I missed a day (or several days) that I could make up what was most important sometime over the weekend or even let it go and pick it up with next week's routine. Not having to struggle with the housework has freed up my mind to focus on more important tasks such as family relationships.

Part of nurturing those relationships is also taking time for my own personal reflection. Right now, my preschoolers seem to be most content when they have full bellies right after breakfast. They scamper off to play and I stay at the table to read and meditate as a way to gear up for the day. In order to get some down time at night, I do end up staying awake later than I would like but that is the best time in our house right now.

I hope that this is in some way helpful to you as you work to find the balance that's right for you and your family! Best wishes!

Tricia C.


Congratulations for making it through your first year and for being clear about your priorities. I can definitely sympathize with you about the difficulties of balancing housework, toddler-care, and time for oneself. My son is two years old now (a happy nursing toddler) and I have some ideas to share with you that have worked for my family and me.

My first suggestion is to look at your family budget and see if there is room for professional housekeeping. We have help every other week to do the housework I dislike the most, such as deep-cleaning bathrooms and dusting, as well as a good once-over on all surfaces. I find that this frees me from hated housework that I used to put off until the mess was overwhelming (making the task that much more unpleasant!). It also allows me to ignore some things that would otherwise bother me-I can tell myself it doesn't matter if the kitchen floor is a little dirty, because the housekeeper is coming later that week. There are times when I have felt a little decadent to be a stay-at-home mother who also needs a housekeeper, but I have found more and more mothers who use this "secret weapon"!

The other idea I have for you is to make everyday household chores part of your baby's fun activities. He won't be a lot of help at first, but at least he will have fun while you are getting things done, and it builds a good foundation for him helping you with chores as he grows up. For example, my son has enjoyed putting plastic food storage containers away out of the dishwasher for almost a year now, and he is learning where to put the silverware, pots, and pans. He also likes to help vacuum (using a handheld vacuum), mop (using a lightweight dusting mop), and brushing the dog's fur. When possible, I have him help clean up his toys, too.

If your child is napping regularly and has a predictable bedtime, I suggest that you plan how to use your "time off" carefully. It's all too easy to run around in circles without accomplishing much or feeling very relaxed. I try to use my son's nap times to either take a nap myself, or do something that I really enjoy (read a book, work on a craft, or catch up on email). I find if I use that time to do chores, I feel burned out and irritated by the end of the day. After Seth is in bed, I work on any remaining chores with my husband's help.

Finally, the one thing I've found essential to recharge my batteries is knowing that I have an evening to myself each week. It doesn't really matter what I do with the time, as long as I get away from home and family and enjoy myself. (Right now I volunteer with a dog-training group once a week.) I find I come home refreshed, happy, and in love with my family all over again.

Rachel H.

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