Has Your Toddler Reached the Right Developmental Milestones?
Takeaway: Toddlers (age 1-2) have usually learned a specific set of physical, thinking, language, and social skills. And the critical skills in these categories are called developmental milestones. Many toddlers reach these milestones slightly late, but if your child is significantly delayed, it’s worth contacting a specialist.
Most children ‘grow’ just fine. But some have problems ‘developing’. And that difference is important.
Getting bigger (i.e., ‘growing’) isn’t a problem for most children. If you feed them enough, it usually happens automatically. But ‘developing’ can be different. While growth is about size, development is about complexity. It’s about being able to learn more complex skills and behaviours continually. And it helps us adapt to our environment better. So, signs of development in babies could be graduating from sitting up to crawling, then to walking. Or transitioning from babbling to talking. As with growing, children usually follow a similar developmental path. But not always.
Over the years, researchers have traced out a rough map of how children develop. And this map has key markers along the way. We call these markers ‘milestones’.
Milestones are behaviours that show a child has moved up a level in complexity. Taking the example above, sitting up takes more effort and skill than lying down. And the same goes when we compare crawling with sitting up. More muscles have to be coordinated just right to reach these milestones.
You can find developmental milestones across all dimensions of a child’s life.
It helps if we split up developmental milestones over four categories.
- Physical milestones: These involve learning to control muscles better. Children slowly develop gross motor skills (i.e., using large muscle groups) to do things like sit, stand, walk, balance, and so on. At the same time, they’re also developing fine motor skills (i.e., using the smaller muscles of the hand) to feed and groom themselves, to play, draw, write, etc.
- Cognitive milestones: These involve learning to use the mind. So, children are always challenging themselves to learn about the world around them, think about what they’ve learned, reason through and solve problems, and remember what they’ve experienced.
- Language milestones: These involve communicating with people. Children start with simple gestures but soon progress to speaking, listening, and understanding.
- Social milestones: These involve mastering the social world. Children are quickly drawn into a complex social world filled with intentions, emotions, feelings, beliefs, judgments, and more. And navigating this world means learning to understand what others need, help them where possible, and express important needs where necessary.
So, how is your toddler doing in terms of these milestones?
The term ‘toddler’ applies to any child that toddles, so it can be quite vague. For this post, let’s stick with children who are between 1 and 2 years old. There’ll obviously be a big difference between these two ages, but we can pick out some general trends.
1. Physical milestones: Sitting up, walking, running, and playing
As your child enters toddlerhood (age 1), you’ll notice she starts to engage with the world much more — perhaps becoming more active and interested in the things around her. She’ll probably be much more expressive now and might even begin to use a few words. Physically, you’ll notice her sit up without help and then start to pull herself up using furniture. She’ll then slowly begin to stand by herself, take a few steps, and toddle around. By the time she’s 2, she’ll probably be running around with ease, throwing and kicking a ball, and climbing up and down stairs. As her fine motor skills develop, she’ll learn to coordinate her wrists, fingers, and palms — allowing her to start drawing (basic lines and circles), turning doorknobs, opening bottles, etc.
2. Cognitive milestones: Exploring the world and solving problems
As she’s able to move physically through the world, your child’s mind will start blossoming. She’ll begin to explore your home, looking for things and finding them if you hide them. And she’ll be shaking, banging, and throwing things, as part of this exploration. This is also around when she’ll figure out if she’s right- or left-handed because her brain is now ‘wiring itself’ for that. Next, you’ll notice her begin to develop spatial awareness — perhaps pointing at things and places. And she’ll start solving problems — for example, figuring out how to reach those yummy treats on top of a nearby table. She’ll also begin to grasp the concept of time, which means you can set up daily routines like brushing teeth when she wakes up and before she sleeps. It helps that she’s now able to follow simple instructions too, so these rules add structure to her life. Finally, as her mind develops, you’ll notice her play becomes more elaborate. She might, for example, start coming up with creative scenarios instead of just moving her toys around.
3. Language milestones: A rapidly increasing vocabulary
Your child will enter toddlerhood by using simple gestures like waving goodbye or shaking and nodding her head for ‘no’ and ‘yes’. She’ll be eager to communicate with you, so will start making sounds that seem like speech but aren’t. And these will soon be followed by her first real words. She’ll probably start with ‘mama’ and ‘dada’ but will repeat any word she overhears, trying to add them to her fast-growing vocabulary. She’ll learn the names of things around her and the people in her life, and she’ll soon start stringing all of them together in sentences of two to four words. So, she’ll upgrade from saying “Mummy, apple” to “Mummy, I want apple”. And she’ll always be practising her conversation skills, so if you’re not around she’ll be speaking to her teddy. The amusing part is that many of these chats will be replays of things you’ve said to her.
4. Social milestones: Bonding and playing with people
You child isn’t just exploring the physical world. She’ll be fascinated by the social world, too. And she’ll use her fast-evolving language skills to reach out to people (although she might be shy around strangers). For example, she might make certain sounds or gesture in particular ways to get your attention. It’s why games like ‘peek-a-boo’ make her laugh so much. And she’ll begin to mimic you and other adults as a way of making sense of this new social world she’s a part of. You’ll also notice that she starts to get excited when other children are around. She might not play with them (group play takes time to evolve) but will probably enjoy playing next to them. This can, of course, lead to conflict (toys get yanked away from playmates, after all). And you’ll see tempers rise as she enters her ‘terrible twos’, falls in love with the word ‘No!’, and begins to explore an identity of her own. But don’t worry. With the right feedback, she’ll slowly learn how to deal with her emotions. And this need for independence comes with a lot of positives, too. For example, she might want to start learning how to potty train so that she can be a ‘big girl’!
So, what if your toddler takes longer than usual to reach some of these milestones? It doesn’t have to be a big deal.
Milestones are just rough estimates. Children develop at different rates and it’s not necessarily a problem if your child seems to be slightly behind. The trick is to help stimulate her mind as much as possible. So,
- Talk to and read to her every day. That way, she’ll have enough material to work with as she learns language rules and picks up new words. Picture books are great for this because she’ll get to point to and name things she might not see in day-to-day life. Another strategy is to describe whatever you’re doing. For example, “Mummy is cleaning the table. It’s so messy, isn’t it?” And if she says something, try and add to it. So, if she says ‘table’, you could say “Yes! It’s a brown table” as a way of building her vocabulary.
- Keep exposing her to new things. This extends the idea of challenging her mind. A trip to the park or a bus ride, for example, is a chance to see, hear, smell, and touch so many new things. And her brain gets the chance to process all of this and develop a bit more. By age 2, you could let her get some stimulation from educational TV shows as well. But not too much and only when you are around.
- Play games that challenge her physically. She should be running around, climbing up things, sliding down slides, and more. Her body needs to develop just as much as her mind.
- Encourage her to be as independent as possible. For example, let her feed herself if she tries. And if she asks about potty training, giving it a go.
- Be kind but firm when setting boundaries. You’ll want to be clear and consistent with how you discipline her. Many parents find that focussing on the positive and modelling good behaviour is more effective than merely punishing bad behaviour. And when you do need to discipline her, saying a firm ‘no’ followed by a 1-minute ‘time out’ might get better results than shouting at or lecturing her. And for the good behaviour, make sure to shower her with hugs and kisses.
So, when should you be concerned? Here are some signs worth paying attention to.
Delays are fine, but significant delays might need attention. For example, you might want to take action if your 1-year-old still can’t stand unsupported, isn’t speaking at all, and/or won’t gesture or point at things. By age 2, she should ideally have graduated to two-word phrases, be able to use everyday objects like spoons and phones, and be able to follow simple instructions. Most importantly, she shouldn’t lose any of these skills after she’s developed them.
So what can you do if you’re concerned about your child missing milestones? Consider consulting a specialist.
The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges, in London. We have psychologists and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356
- E-mail: Office@TheEdPsych.com
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