Moving beyond babyhood and into unique personality

Often when people think of toddlers they assume “terrible twos,” and because of that, toddlers have sort of a bad rap. I mean, really, toddlers are 95% super sweet and adorable! As they explore their abilities, begin to assert independence, and forge an identity, it is totally normal to push boundaries once in a while.

Toddler development is where that little person becomes a more of an individual, wanting to exercise more control over things, and wanting to be understood. Gaining the ability to communicate is a huge step in and making all of that happen. But often toddler speech is still quite hard to understand, and that can create frustration (and some major mood swings).

Watching for progress

Just as it’s natural for the toddler to rebel, it’s natural for parents to worry. Parents who wonder if their toddler is on track for developmental milestones can find solace in knowing they are not alone. Children develop at their own pace, and there’s not an exact time they’ll learn a specific skill, but common milestones do help establish a general idea of what to watch for and when. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that nearly 18% of children in the U.S. have a developmental disability1.

Resources for parents to gauge their toddler’s developmental progress are easy to find, and pediatricians are always willing to lend an ear to concerned parents. If there are delays, early intervention services are accessible to all and can significantly improve long-term outcomes.

Early childhood expert Jane Squires, Ph.D., stresses the importance of involving parents in the monitoring of young children’s development. After all, who knows the child better? Squires is lead author of the Ages & Stages Questionnaires®, Third Edition (ASQ®-3). ASQ-3 is often used by pediatricians and child care centers, in conjunction with parents and caregivers, as an initial screening to help identify young children at risk for developmental delays.

Noteworthy Milestones

What sorts of developmental milestones should parents notice, when it comes to typically developing children between 1 and 3 years of age? The CDC gives us a breakdown on some noteworthy behaviors for most toddlers.

At 1 year: have favorite things and people; cry when mom or dad leaves and be nervous with strangers; repeat sounds or actions for attention; put out arm or leg to help with dressing; play games like peek-a-boo or pat-a-cake; hand you a book to hear a story; try to say words you say; use simple gestures like shaking head no or waving goodbye; find hidden things easily; start to use things correctly (brush hair, drink from cup); put things into or take out of a container; follow simple directions like “pick up the toy”; may stand alone or take steps without holding on.

At age 18 months: shows affection to familiar people; may cling to caregivers in new situations; points to show others something; pretends to feed a doll; says several single words; scribbles; follows 1-step verbal commands such as “sit down”; pulls toys while walking; can help undress self; drinks from a cup and eats with a spoon.

By the end of year 2: copies others; gets excited when with other kids; shows defiant behavior; points to things when named and can name familiar items and people; says sentences with 2-4 words; points to things in books; begins to sort shapes and colors; plays make-believe; builds a tower of 4 or more blocks; throws a ball overhand; makes or copies lines and circles; kicks a ball, begins to run; follows 2-step instructions.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends developmental screening and autism screening for all children at age two.

How parents can help

“The most important thing is scaffolding or seeing where the child is, taking them to the next step,” says Squires. “It’s the most important thing that parents can do for their children.” Reaching that next step can be fun—because you can get there in large part through play. Being present and engaged with your child is a priceless support, both for fostering healthy development and for having the kind of close, attentive relationship that allows for early identification if there is delay.

Squires suggests some simple activities parents can try with their children:
With babies 12–16 months of age:

  • Make an obstacle course with boxes or furniture that baby can climb over, under, or through.
  • Make noisy shakers by filling containers with different sounding objects (and secured with tight fitting lids).
  • Cut up safe finger foods and let baby pick them up, feel the textures, and feed themself.
  • Make puppets out of a sock or paper bag and have the puppet “talk” to you and encourage baby to talk back.

With toddlers 16–20 months of age:

  • Help your toddler play cleanup games and sort objects into piles.
  • Give your toddler a small wagon or an old purse for “collecting” things. They can fill and empty it and pull it around.
  • Sing action songs like “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and do the actions together.
  • Expose your toddler to the joys of playing in water and playing with bubbles.
  • Use boxes or buckets for your toddler to throw beanbags or balls into.

With babies 20–24 months of age:

  • Hide a loudly ticking clock or a softly playing radio in a room and have the toddler find it, then take turns hiding and finding.
  • Turn objects upside down (books, cups, shoes, etc.) and see if the toddler notices and turns them back. Toddlers like “silly” games.
  • Teach the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” to reinforce naming body parts (and name other details too such as teeth, eyebrows, fingernails, etc.).

With toddlers 24–30 months of age:

  • Play a jumping game when you take a walk, by hopping over cracks in a sidewalk (you may have to help at first).
  • Wrap tape around one end of a piece of yarn and knot the other end, and allow your toddler to string large macaroni, large beads, or Cheerios.
  • Pretending becomes more fun now! Pretend you are a dog or cat, making animal sounds and actions.
  • Take time to draw with your child when they show interest. Take turns drawing large shapes and coloring them in.

With toddlers 30–36 months of age:

  • Collect empty cereal boxes, egg cartons, etc. and help your child set up their own grocery store.
  • Get a piece of paper large enough for you to trace an outline of your child. Talk about body parts and print the words on the paper, having the child draw and color on the poster.
  • Read a familiar story and pause frequently to leave out a word, asking your child to fill it in.
  • Build roads and bridges with blocks and use cars to teach location words (over, under, between, etc.).

Free screenings available

Parents can go online anytime and try an ASQ developmental screener for free at www.agesandstagesresearch.com (no obligation; and no personal names or addresses are collected). Each questionnaire takes about 10–15 minutes to complete. Answer based on your observations of your child in natural environments, looking at communication, gross motor, fine motor, problem solving, and personal-social skills. You can see a copy of your child’s screening results by email and/or download at end of the session, and get targeted play and learning activities that fit your child’s age, as well as suggested resources if you have concerns about risk for delay.

Early intervention is key

In the event that delays are suspected, don’t panic! Identifying possible delays early puts you on the right path to getting the supports in place to help your child achieve better outcomes. Discuss your child’s development and any concerns with your pediatrician. They’ll have lots of advice, as well as referral options for you to pursue early intervention services if needed. You can also do some homework online, including some of the additional resources shown on this page.

Additional resources for parents:
Ages & Stages Questionnaires
www.agesandstages.com
www.agesandstagesresearch.com

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones
www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/childdevelopment/positiveparenting/toddlers.html
https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/concerned.html

American Academy of Pediatrics
https://healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/toddler/Pages/default.aspx

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1 https://www.aappublications.org/news/2019/09/26/disabilities092619

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    What ASQ Users are Saying

    “What I love about the ASQ is that it allows our staff to catch delays quickly and allows us to get our clients the early intervention programs that they sometimes need. In many cases [ASQ] helps us catch children up before they start kindergarten, therefore providing children with the start that they deserve.

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