During the toddler years, your child will rapidly change and grow, learn skills, and be able to interact with the world in new and different ways. This process is known as development, and it encompasses several areas, including cognitive development, physical development, language skills, and social development.
Areas of Toddler Development
Your child will change substantially during his or her toddler years. You can expect to see development in these areas.
Cognitive development refers to intellectual capabilities, such as thinking and reasoning, as well as the acquisition of knowledge and the ability to process information. During the toddler years, parents will see tremendous leaps in this area.
Physical development includes a toddler’s growth as well as their gross and fine motor skills. While changes in this area won’t be as pronounced or rapid as it is in the infant stage, you will see lots of leaps and bounds (literally) from ages 1 to 3.
- Fine motor development includes skills that involve the use of smaller muscles, like fingers and hands.
- Gross motor development refers to skills that require the use of a toddler’s large muscles, like his legs and arms.
Language skills are another significant aspect of toddler development. From 12 to 36 months, toddlers typically go from using a handful of words to connecting pictures and objects with words to speaking in complete sentences and communicating more complex thoughts and ideas.
Period of Rapid Change
All of this growth and development may seem like a tall order for such a small child, but parents will be amazed at the changes they see in their toddler over the next two years.
While there are normal developmental milestones that toddlers often reach at relatively similar ages and stages, all children are different and learn and develop at their own pace.
In addition, it’s not uncommon to find that a toddler favors one type of development over another. For example, a toddler who is very verbal may seem to lag behind his peers in gross motor skill development and vice versa. But parents can rest assured—most of the time, these differences in developmental timelines even out within a few years and are not necessarily a sign of a delay.
How to Encourage Development
As a parent, how can you encourage your child’s development? At such a young age, many aspects of a toddler’s life can affect development both positively and negatively. Here’s a look at some of the major factors that can influence all aspects of development:
Food and Nutrition
Toddlers have a reputation for being picky eaters, but it’s important for parents to make sure a young child is eating nutritious meals and snacks. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a toddler should be eating three meals and one or two snacks each day consisting of protein, carbohydrates, and fat from a variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, meat, and whole grains.
Malnutrition from not enough food, meals lacking in proper nutrients and minerals, or a diet that includes too much sugar can inhibit brain development and physical growth, cause tooth decay, or set a toddler up for issues with obesity. Parents need to ensure that the basic nutrition needs of a toddler are met.
A Safe Environment
Living in a safe community and home is paramount to supporting a child’s emotional and social development and health. Some risk factors that can potentially lead to developmental delays include a mother suffering from depression, other parental mental health issues, violence in the home, drug use/abuse, and/or poverty.
In addition, for parents who work outside of the home, choosing the right nanny, caregiver, daycare, or preschool is critical to your child’s development because a child will likely be spending the bulk of his waking hours in their care. It is important to find a safe, healthy, and caring environment for your young child in order to support their cognitive, gross motor, fine motor, emotional, and social skills as your child progresses through the toddler stage.
Play and Interaction
In order for toddlers to learn and develop, it is critical for caregivers to interact with children in loving, caring ways and provide them with opportunities to explore, create, and play. For children in daycare or preschool settings, you’ll want to ensure that a child has access to creative play, like toys, books, and art supplies.
Creative play helps develop cognitive skills as well as fine motor skills, and is encouraged to participate in active play, which strengthens muscles and helps toddlers develop gross motor skills. It is also important that parents and other caregivers interact with toddlers. Talking to toddlers, playing with them, and encouraging them helps them develop emotionally and socially. Communicating with adults is an important aspect of language acquisition.
How Development Is Monitored
Not all children develop at the same rate, but there are developmental milestones that doctors expect to see within a certain timeframe, and interventions such as speech, physical, or occupational therapy may be recommended if a toddler has not reached a developmental milestone within a suggested range.
To gauge your child’s development, your pediatrician will ask questions about how your child plays, moves, interacts with others, speaks, responds to questions or directions as well as questions about independent behaviors like feeding or dressing herself. Many pediatricians use the Ages and Stages Questionnaire, a widely used screening tool for kids from birth through to age 6.
Parents are asked to fill out the questionnaire in advance of the visit, which asks a series of questions that measure your child’s communication, problem-solving, personal, social, and gross and fine motor skills. The questionnaire is designed to help identify children who are at risk for developmental delays and encourages parental involvement in their child’s development.
Whether you fill out a questionnaire or simply talk to the doctor, the goal is to identify potential delays and provide the appropriate services that can support a toddler, known as “early intervention.”