Understanding Child Development Stages [Parenting Guide]

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No one said that having a child is easy, but there are certain things you can do to make the journey of parenthood easier. One of those things? Understanding the basics of child development — the stages, the milestones and what you can expect from each. After all, it’s easier to know how to parent when you know what to expect. 

But don’t feel like you need to take an early childhood education class at your local community college or become a mental health expert to better understand why your toddler acts the way he does or to get an idea of when exactly your new baby should start crawling. You don’t even need to read a lengthy, dry book or rely on random Google searches for advice that may or may not be correct. You can simply check out our quick guide to understand child development and get some practical parenting tips for each age range.

Understanding Stage Milestones 

Each “stage” of child development comes with its own milestones. These milestones are pretty easy to observe when your child is younger; you’ll obviously notice when your child starts walking or talking. These milestones become less noticeable when your child gets older, and they start learning emotional and social skills. 

Developmental milestones are broken down into four basic categories: physical, mental, emotional and social.

Physical skills are pretty standard and what you’d expect — walking, standing, fine motor skills, etc. Emotional skills range, and honestly, some of us adults are still getting the hang of them; they might include learning to control your anger or learning how to detect the emotions of those around you. Mental skills really come into play in the school setting and include memorization, logic, etc. Lastly, social skills are also pretty easily definable, and they all revolve around how well your child relates to others. 

For each developmental stage in your child’s life, you’ll want to look for key milestones in all four of these categories. 

The Early Childhood Stage

The early childhood stage is pretty substantial. It covers the first eight years of your child’s life and is where a ton happens in terms of development. Children grow a lot in these early years. Just think about it — there’s a big difference between what a newborn can do versus what an eight-year-old can do. To make this huge swathe of time more palatable and easy to understand, let’s break them down into smaller chunks. 

The First Year

The first year of your child’s life is very important in terms of emotional and social development. While your child won’t exactly be running all over the place at 12 months, they will be experiencing emotional changes and learning important social skills, primarily from the way they interact with you (the parents), other caregivers and potentially kids in their child care group. 

Psychologist Jean Piaget called this period of life from birth to about two years the “sensorimotor” stage, during which children learn about and become accustomed to the world primarily through their five senses. That’s why you’ve probably noticed that it’s difficult to keep your child from touching and tasting just about everything in sight. 

Particular milestones to watch for include:

  • Smiling and making indiscernible noises (by 3 months)
  • Visual tracking and a particular attraction to colors and faces (by 3 months)
  • Ability to lift head while on stomach (by 3 months)
  • Can be comforted by a caregiver when upset (by 3 months)
  • Ability to actively use hands, feet and other body parts (by 3 months)
  • Can sit up when helped (by 6 months, can sit up on own by 1 year)
  • Can roll, bounce and “army crawl” (by 6 months)
  • Can grip items in hand (by 6 months)
  • Tries to walk (by 1 year)
  • Likes simple entertainment, like songs, playing peek-a-boo, etc. (by 1 year)
  • Understands basic words and own name, at least enough to respond when called (by 1 year)
  • Tries to speak or imitate sounds (by 1 year)
  • Likes to explore with all five senses (by 1 year)

You can help your child through this development stage by actively engaging with your child as much as possible. Talk to them, sing to them, read to them, etc. Introduce them to the world at a gentle pace and establish routines that they can become accustomed to, such as bedtime routines and feeding schedules. 

For more specific breakdowns, the CDC breaks down the 2, 4, 6 and 9-month stages as well. 

Related: Potty Training Tips You’ll Be Glad To Know [Complete Guide]

1-3 Years Old 

The toddler stage is both enjoyable and a bit terrifying; they’re not called “the terrible twos” for nothing. A lot of physical development takes place during this time as your child learns to run, balance, use fine motor skills, use gross motor skills, etc. 

However, social and emotional development are accelerating too, as your child learns to work with others, be part of a community, learn new skills, regulate their emotions and more. 

Starting at 2, children are in what Piaget considered the “preoperational” stage, as they begin to use their imaginations. They learn to understand the passing of time and more abstract concepts (though don’t expect your child to know all of this before they are 2, or all at once — this “preoperational” learning stage can last through age 7). 

Particular milestones to watch for include:

  • Basic talking (by 2 years)
  • Likes stories and pretend games, as they develop their imagination (by 2 years)
  • Can climb and run (by 2 years)
  • Likes to use writing utensils and “read” (by 2 years)
  • Can mostly eat on own (by 2 years)
  • Repeats words or phrases after hearing them (by 3 years)
  • Gets frustrated when they’re not as independent as they’d like to be (by 3 years)
  • Can perform basic tasks, like hand washing, dressing, drawing shapes (by 3 years)

You can help your child through this stage of development by introducing them to more people and caregivers so that they’re comfortable with adults who aren’t mom or dad. Remember those tantrums? You can also help them learn to regulate their emotions and impulses with some positive parenting techniques — provide a negative consequence for bad behavior and some positive reinforcement for the behavior you want replicated. 

Meanwhile, still continue talking to read to, sing to and otherwise play with your child. These seemingly small tasks help build your child’s language development and increase their overall happiness and well-being. 

Related: The 21 Best Gifts For One-Year-Olds [Shopper’s Guide]

3-5 Years Old

Preschoolers really ramp up the social and mental development, largely thanks to the school setting. Suddenly, they’re exposed to all kinds of new people and experiences. They’re learning how to interact with their peers while also taking in a huge amount of new information, from numbers to letters to color names to the alphabet (if you haven’t been teaching these skills at home already). 

Particular milestones to watch for include:

  • Can sing a song or nursery rhyme from memory (by 4 years)
  • Tells stories (even if they don’t make sense) (by 4 years)
  • Knows own name and basic information about self (by 4 years)
  • Becomes very inquisitive and asks questions (by 5 years)
  • Can sit still and pay attention for longer amounts of time (by 5 years)
  • Can express emotions verbally (by 5 years)
  • Can make friends (by 5 years) 
  • Knows social concepts like sharing and playing games with others (by 5 years)

Preschool is also often the start of developmental screening, where educators can help give you a gauge on your child’s early brain development and health to make sure they are on track and thriving. If your kiddo shows any signs of delay, you can also start working through an early intervention plan.

You can help children through this stage of development by increasing the complexity of your interactions with them; for example, introduce more complex games and make-believe in lieu of screen time, and forgo “baby talk” for more adult language. 

Additionally, you can help your child become more independent by giving them small chores or allowing them to make simple choices, like what to wear or what to eat. Even young children (2 or 3 years of age) can start learning some basic chores. If you aren’t sure where to start, here is a good guideline.

Another important skill you can help them with is adjusting to being away from you or another parent by scheduling more playtimes where you’re not around. 

Related: The 16 Best Montessori Toys [For Infants To Elementary Aged Kids]

5-8 Years Old

Around this time, school-age children are becoming more aware of the world around them and are learning to develop emotional responses to cope with that fact. They’re developing empathy and learning about diversity. Their world — physically, mentally, socially and emotionally — becomes less about themselves.

Particular milestones to watch for include…

  • Likes to stay busy and has enjoyed hobbies (by 7 years)
  • Can perform basic physical skills, like riding a bike or jumping rope (by 7 years)
  • Can read independently (by 8 years)
  • Can dress, shower and otherwise care for their bathroom needs independently (by 8 years)
  • Can manage emotions much more than they could a few years ago (by 8 years)
  • Likes to involve themselves in “adult” activities, whether playing dress-up, helping a parent, etc. (by 8 years)
  • Likes being around others (by 8 years) 

You can help your child’s development by encouraging your child to further explore the world around them and all of the opportunities that are becoming available to them, such as new hobbies and new social situations. Encourage them to make friends, but also discuss important social development concepts, like peer pressure and stranger danger

Related: 19 Books Every Kindergartener Should Read [Parenting Guide]

The Middle Childhood Stage

The middle childhood stage occurs from 8 to 12 years. Physical development has slowed by this point (but don’t worry — it’s going to accelerate again once your child hits puberty). Still, social and cognitive development becomes more complex the older your child becomes. 

Particular milestones to watch for include:

  • Ability to use “tools” to get a job done and to project solve independently (by 9 years)
  • Begins to develop an interest in romantic relationships (by 9 years) 
  • Can both read and write stories, letters and other communication (by 10 years)
  • Can use basic technology (by 10 years)
  • Develops key relationships with others of the same age (by 10 years)

You can help your child through this stage of development by continuing to encourage them to develop interests and hobbies, as well as continuing to foster friendships. 

The Adolescent Stage

The adolescent stage covers your child’s teen years, another large swathe of time, from 12 to 18. A lot of development occurs during this period, as you likely realize, given how different a 12-year-old is from an 18-year-old in terms of both emotional maturity and physical development. 

Your child will also be fine-tuning their social and mental skills and even work towards professional development as they go through high school and learn to become more independent.

The adolescent stage can be quite hard for some parents, as children learn to lean more on themselves and their peers for support and assistance. However, with the proper care and right behavior, you can maintain a healthy relationship with your child through the adolescent stage.

Particular milestones to watch for include:

  • Puberty begins (by 14 years) 
  • Develops interest in larger issues, such as social, political or environmental 
  • Thinks about long-term goals and life
  • Compares one’s developmental progress (in any of the four areas) to others around them 
  • Romantic or sexual relationships become more important 

You can help your child through this stage of development by allowing them to be more independent and encouraging your child to explore their independence in healthy ways, whether that’s through taking on new responsibilities (like a job or team sport) or taking a trip with a relative or traveling alone to visit a college. Encourage your child to find a trusted mentor to talk to, regardless of whether or not that individual is you. 

Talk about healthy ways to manage stress and then model that behavior in front of your child (in other words, if you don’t want your teen drinking to deal with stress, maybe don’t do so in front of them). Take an active interest in your teen’s interests, too, as a way to spend time together. 

Need More?

If you need even more extensive information and descriptions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has put together an expansive checklist that breaks child development stages from birth to age five down even further. The printable sheets are easy to use, as you keep track of your child’s milestones and how you’re doing your part to help them develop. 

Don’t Worry!

If your child isn’t perfectly hitting every single milestone on this list, don’t fret. Healthy development is an on-going process, not a linear set of stairs to climb. 

There are many reasons why your child might be struggling in certain areas, and it’s not necessarily a reflection on your parenting skills or on your child’s health. Talk to your child’s doctor to see if any true concern is warranted.

You might also be interested in: The 15 Best Swing Sets For Kids Of All Ages [Complete Guide]

Holly Riddle

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