Developmental Milestones Your Toddler Shouldn’t Miss
Takeaway: By the end of toddlerhood (age 3), your child will likely be able to (1) play outdoor games and ride a tricycle, (2) understand ‘cause and effect’, (3) speak in short sentences, (4) play alongside friends, and (5) feed herself simple meals using a fork and spoon. So, if you’re concerned that she’s missing these milestones, consider consulting a specialist.
Your child’s early development plays a huge role in shaping her life.
At birth, your child’s brain is about a quarter of the size of an adult’s, and it’ll become twice as big by age 1. By age 5, it’ll be more or less done growing (having reached 90% of its full size), but will still have years of internal changes ahead. These changes involve forming and reforming new brain pathways (i.e., connections between brain cells), depending on your child’s experiences interacting with the world around her. And these changes (reflected in her physical, mental, and social development) play a huge role in shaping the adult she’ll become.
That’s why it’s worth tracking your child’s development. Specifically, to watch for important milestones.
Children go through 5 broad developmental stages from birth to age 5. Newborns (0-3 months) grow into infants (3-12 months), who then start toddling (1-3 years), become preschoolers (3-4 years), and finally reach school age (4-5 years). And as they work their way through these stages, they’re reaching developmental milestones in 5 general areas. There’s cognition (thinking, reasoning, solving problems), motor skills (walking, running, throwing, catching, drawing, etc.), socialising, language learning, and self-care (eating, washing, dressing, etc.) The essential milestones we’ll cover below are like landmarks on a hike – they’re reassuring signs that your child is on track with her development into a well-adjust adult.
Toddlers, in particular, reach 5 developmental milestones worth noting.
We can spot many mini-advancements in toddlers (i.e., children age 1- 3), but they all lead to the following 5 milestones.
1. Physical milestone: your child can play outdoor games and ride a tricycle.
As your child turns 1, she’ll start having more control of her body. She’ll learn to use the small muscles of her hand – enough to be able to make marks on paper. She’ll then get better at sitting up, crawling and might even stand and take a few steps. As she nears age 2, she’ll get comfortable moving around – walking more smoothly, for example. And she’ll have enough hand-eye coordination to stack blocks. All these developments come together by age 3, when your child has enough muscle control (and coordination) to play outdoor games. That means a bit of running and jumping, throwing/kicking a ball, and perhaps even some climbing (on playground equipment, for example). She’ll likely be able to ride a tricycle, too.
2. Cognitive milestone: she can understand basic ‘cause & effect’ and ‘object permanence.’
Your child’s mind will be reaching ‘thinking’ milestones as well. For example, she’ll get better at solving simple puzzles, naming colours, grouping similar objects, and saying numbers out loud (although perhaps not in the right order). But most notably, she’ll begin to understand natural laws like ‘cause and effect’ (‘if I put my hand in mud, it’ll get wet and icky’) and ‘object permanence’ (‘even if Mummy leaves the room – and I can’t see her – she’s still there.’).
3. Language milestone: she can speak in short sentences with basic grammar.
Your child’s thinking can develop only if her language skills keep pace (we think using words and language, after all). So, she’ll start building up a vocabulary – beginning with her first word (around age 1), 5-10 words by 1.5 years, and 50+ words by age 3. She’ll also begin to put these words together – first, using short two-word phrases (e.g., ‘me play’), but soon, using more words strung together with basic grammar (e.g., ‘Mummy play with me’). She’ll also begin to engage with people – asking (and answering) questions, listening to stories, naming objects, narrating everything she does, and following two-step instructions (e.g., ‘Put that toy in the cupboard and sit with me’).
4. Social milestone: she can play alongside friends.
As your child recognises the world outside of herself, she’ll learn to communicate with the people in her life. She’ll start by imitating them and joining in with whatever they’re doing. But she’ll also begin to explore the world of feelings, trying to understand them in both herself and others. A large part of this, of course, she’ll learn through play. She’ll slowly work through the stages of play – first playing by herself, then watching other children play, then playing next to them, and finally, playing side-by-side with occasional interactions. (Note: This final one is called ‘associative play’, and will later develop into ‘cooperative play,’ where she’ll play with her friends, rather than just next to them.)
5. Self-care milestone: she can feed herself simple meals using a spoon/fork.
Your toddler will gradually learn to be an independent person. For example, she’ll enter toddlerhood wearing nappies, but by age 3, would have learned to use the toilet (with a bit of help). Similarly, she’ll learn to brush her teeth (with supervision), take off her socks and shoes, and unbutton large buttons. She’ll also learn to avoid dangers like the stove, the stairs, and broken glass. And she’ll learn to feed herself simple meals using a fork or spoon, wiping her hands and face with a napkin.
Milestones are great, but don’t worry about them too much. Instead, pay more attention to developmental ‘red flags.’
Your child will develop at her own pace, and that’s perfectly fine. These milestones are a rough guide, not a rigid schedule. However, it’ll help to keep an eye out for glaring ‘red flags’ – for example, if your child doesn’t really interact with people or respond to her environment (sights, sounds, smells, etc.). Or if one side of her body is weaker or less coordinated than the other. Red flags like these apply at any age, but there are some toddler-specific ones too. For example, it would be a red flag if your 3-year-old struggles with emotions (i.e., noticing/understanding them in herself or others), can’t use simple 3-word sentences, can’t speak clearly enough for you to understand, can’t coordinate her fingers (to thread beads, for instance), doesn’t try to feed/dress herself, or can’t run, jump, or climb stairs.
If you’ve noticed some of these red flags (or are concerned about missed milestones), feel free to contact us for help.
The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356
- E-mail: Office@TheEdPsych.com
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