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Is this child’s development on track?
That’s a question parents, pediatricians, educators, and caregivers ask over and over again as children grow and change.
To help answer this important question, child development experts have created lots of different charts and checklists that can help you keep track of child development across several key domains:
- physical development
- cognitive development (thinking skills)
- language development
- social-emotional development
Know that you’re going to see some variation between the lists. Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital looked at four of the best known child development checklists and found that they mention a total of 728 different skills and abilities.
More importantly, just 40 of those developmental milestones show up on all four checklists, which begs the question: Should you depend on a single checklist?
A good approach, these researchers suggest, is to start by talking to your child’s pediatrician or primary care provider. The measures that doctors use may be different from those that parents can find in print or online checklists.
Your child’s physician can screen your child for any developmental delays using validated screening tools at or in-between well visits.
It may also help to think of development as an individual progression, rather than as a list of boxes you should tick at certain prescribed intervals. If progress stops or seems to stop, it’s time to talk to your child’s healthcare provider.
If there is a delay, identifying it early can sometimes make a big difference for the child.
What are developmental milestones?
Milestones are the things a child can do by a certain age. Most children develop skills and abilities in roughly the same order, but the timeframes involved aren’t exact. They vary from child to child, just as hair and eye color do.
Every child grows and develops at an individual pace. Here’s a quick look at some common milestones for each age period.
During this period of profound growth and development, babies grow and change rapidly.
Doctors recommend that you speak to your baby a lot during this phase, because hearing your voice will help your baby to develop communication skills. Other suggestions include:
- Short periods of tummy time to help strengthen your baby’s neck and back muscles — but make sure baby is awake and you’re close by for this playtime.
- Respond right away when your baby cries. Picking up and comforting a crying baby builds strong bonds between the two of you.
Development table: Birth to 18 months
|Shows interest in objects and human faces
May get bored with repeated activities
|Recognizes familiar faces
Responds to signs of love and affection
|Brings hands up to mouth
Passes things from one hand to the other
|Watches things fall
Looks for hidden things
|Has learned how to use some basic things like spoons
Can point to named body parts
|Social and emotional
|Tries to look at you or other people
Starts to smile at people
|Responds to facial expressions
Enjoys playing with people
Responds differently to different voice tones
Knows when a stranger is present
|May be clingy or prefer familiar people
|May engage in simple pretend games
May have tantrums
May cry around strangers
|Begins to coo and make vowel sounds
Becomes calm when spoken to
Cries differently for different needs
|Begins to babble or imitate sounds
|Responds to hearing their name
May add consonant sounds to vowels
May communicate with gestures
Knows what “no” means
Imitates sounds and gestures
|Knows how to say several words
|Turns toward sounds
Follows objects with eyes
Gradually lifts head for longer periods
|Sees things and reaches for them
Pushes up with arms when on tummy
Might be able to roll over
|Starts sitting up without support
May bounce when held in standing position
Rolls in both directions
|Pulls up into standing position
|Walks holding onto surfaces
May climb a step or two
May drink from a cup
During the toddler years, children continue to need lots of sleep, good nutrition, and close, loving relationships with parents and caregivers.
Doctors at Seattle Children’s Hospital offer this advice for creating a safe, nurturing space to maximize your child’s early growth and development:
- Create predictable routines and rituals to keep your child feeling secure and grounded.
- Toddler-proof your home and yard so kids can explore safely.
- Use gentle discipline to guide and teach children. Avoid hitting, which can cause long-term physical and emotional harm.
- Sing, talk, and read to your toddler to boost their vocabularies.
- Watch your child for cues about the warmth and reliability of all caregivers.
- Take good care of yourself physically and emotionally, because your child needs you to be healthy.
Development table: 18 months to 2 years
|May identify familiar things in picture books
Knows what common objects do
Follows single-step requests like “Please stand up”
|Builds towers from blocks
May follow simple two-part instructions
Groups like shapes and colors together
Plays pretend games
|Social and emotional
|May help with tasks like putting away toys
Is proud of what they’ve accomplished
Recognizes self in mirror; may make faces
May explore surroundings if parent stays close by
|Enjoys play dates
Plays beside other children; may start playing with them
May defy directions like “sit down” or “come back here”
|Knows several words
Follows simple directions
Likes hearing short stories or songs
|May ask simple questions
Can name many things
Uses simple two-word phrases like “more milk”
Says the names of familiar people
|Can help in getting dressed
Begins to run
Drinks well from a cup
Eats with a spoon
Can walk while pulling a toy
Gets seated in a chair
Jumps up and down
Stands on tip-toes
Can draw lines and round shapes
May climb stairs using rails to hold on
During these pre-school years, children grow more and more independent and capable. Their natural curiosity is likely to be stimulated because their world is expanding: new friends, new experiences, new environments like daycare or kindergarten.
During this time of growth, the
- Keep reading to your child daily.
- Show them how to do simple chores at home.
- Be clear and consistent with your expectations, explaining what behaviors you want from your child.
- Speak to your child in age-appropriate language.
- Help your child problem solve when emotions are running high.
- Supervise your child in outdoor play spaces, especially around water and play equipment.
- Allow your child to have choices about how to interact with family members and strangers.
Development table: 3 to 5 years
|Can put together a 3-4 part puzzle
Can use toys that have moving parts like buttons and levers
Can turn door knobs
Can turn book pages
|May be able to count
Can draw stick figures
May be able to predict what will happen in a story
May play simple board games
Can name a few colors, numbers, and capital letters
|Draws more complex “people”
Counts up to 10 things
Can copy letters, numbers, and simple shapes
Understands the order of simple processes
Can say name and address
Names many colors
|Social and emotional
|Shows empathy for hurt or crying children
Understands “mine” and “yours”
May get upset if routines are changed
Can get dressed
Knows how to take turns
|May play games that have roles like “parent” and “baby”
Plays with, not just beside, other kids
Talks about their likes and dislikes
Pretends; may have trouble knowing what’s real and what’s pretend
|Is aware of gender
Likes to play with friends
Sings, dances, and may play acting games
Switches between being compliant and being defiant
Can tell the difference between made-up and real
|Talks using 2-3 sentences at a time
Has the words to name many things used daily
Can be understood by family
Understands terms like “in,” “on,” and “under”
|Can talk about what happens in daycare or at school
Speaks in sentences
May recognize or say rhymes
Can say first and last name
|May tell stories that stay on track
Recites nursery rhymes or sings songs
May be able to name letters and numbers
Can answer simple questions about stories
|Can walk up and down steps with one foot on each stair
Runs and jumps with ease
Catches a ball
Can slide down a slide
|Can hammer a peg into a hole
Climbs stairs confidently
Pours liquids with some help
|May be able to somersault
Hops or stands on one foot for about 10 seconds
Can swing on swingset
Goes to the bathroom in the toilet
During the school years, children gain independence and competence quickly. Friends become more important and influential. A child’s self-confidence will be affected by the academic and social challenges presented in the school environment.
As kids mature, the parenting challenge is to find a balance between keeping them safe, enforcing rules, maintaining family connections, allowing them to make some decisions, and encouraging them to accept increasing responsibility.
Despite their rapid growth and development, they still need parents and caregivers to set limits and encourage healthy habits.
Here are some things you can do to ensure that your child continues to be healthy:
- Make sure they get enough sleep.
- Provide opportunities for regular exercise and individual or team sports.
- Create quiet, positive spaces for reading and studying at home.
- Limit screen time and monitor online activities carefully.
- Build and maintain positive family traditions.
- Talk to your children about consent and setting boundaries with their bodies.
Development table: School-age
|Can complete instructions with 3 or more steps
Can count backward
Knows left and right
|Can use common devices, including phones, tablets, and game stations
Writes stories and letters
Maintains longer attention span
|Develops views and opinions that may differ from parents’ ideas
Grows awareness that parents aren’t always correct
Can understand figurative language
Ability to think logically is improving, but prefrontal cortex is not yet mature
|Internalize work and study habits
Can explain their positions and choices
Continues to differentiate from parents
|Social and emotional
|Cooperates and plays with others
May play with kids of different genders
Mimics adult behaviors
May be modest about bodies
|May have a best friend
Can see from another person’s perspective
Experiences more peer pressure
|May become more independent from parents
Increased need for some privacy
|Increased interest in dating and sexuality
Spends more time with friends than family
Growth in ability to empathize with others
|Can read books at grade level
Understands speech and speaks well
|Listens for specific reasons (like pleasure or learning)
Forms opinions based on what’s heard
Can take brief notes
Follows written instructions
Draws logical inferences based on reading
Can write about a stated main idea
Can plan and give a speech
|Can use speech that isn’t literal
Can use tone of voice to communicate intentions; i.e. sarcasm
|Can speak, read, listen, and write fluently and easily
Can have complex conversations
Can speak differently in different groups
Can write persuasively
Can understand proverbs, figurative language, and analogies
|Can jump rope or ride a bike
Can draw or paint
Can brush teeth, comb hair, and complete basic grooming tasks
Can practice physical skills to get better at them
|May experience signs of early puberty like breast development and facial hair growth
Increased skill levels in sports and physical activities
|Many females will have started periods
Secondary sex characteristics like armpit hair and voice changes continue
Height or weight may change quickly and then slow down
|Continues to mature physically, especially boys
If you’re wondering whether some aspect of a child’s development may be delayed, you have several options.
First, talk to your child’s pediatrician and ask for a developmental screening. The screening tools used by doctors are more thorough than online checklists, and they may give you more reliable information about your child’s abilities and progress.
You can also ask your pediatrician for a referral to a developmental specialist like a pediatric neurologist, occupational therapist, speech/language therapist, or a psychologist who specializes in evaluating children.
If your child is under the age of 3, you can reach out to the
If your child is 3 or older, you can speak to the special education director at the public school near your home (even if your child isn’t enrolled at that school) to ask for a developmental evaluation. Make sure you write down the date and director’s name so you can follow up if necessary.
It’s really important that you act right away if you suspect a developmental delay or disorder, because many developmental issues can be addressed more effectively with early intervention.
During a screening, the healthcare provider may ask you questions, interact with your child, or conduct tests to find out more about what your child can and cannot yet do.
If your child has a medical condition, was born early, or was exposed to an environmental toxin like lead, the doctor might conduct developmental screenings more often.
Talking to parents about milestones
If you’re a caregiver or educator who needs to discuss a possible delay with parents, the
CDCrecommends that you approach the topic in a clear, compassionate way. You may find these tips helpful:
- Talk about milestones often, not just when you’re worried about a delay.
- Use good listening skills. Allow parents to speak without interrupting them, and repeat their concerns so they’ll know you’re paying close attention.
- Consider having a colleague at the meeting to take notes.
Be aware that parents may respond emotionally. Family and cultural issues may shape parents’ reactions.
- Share any notes or records you’ve kept to document the child’s progress.
- Encourage contact with their family pediatrician.
- Follow up, making sure you share good news as well as concerns.
Babies, toddlers, and school-age children develop new skills and abilities in a steady progression as they get older. Every child develops at an individual pace.
Using developmental milestone checklists may be helpful for parents and caregivers who want to be sure that a child is growing in healthy ways. But it’s also important to keep all well child appointments, as development is screened at each of these.
If you’re concerned about the possibility of a missed milestone, your child’s doctor can discuss it with you and can conduct a developmental screening as needed to provide a clearer picture. You can also connect with developmental specialists, early intervention programs, and special education programs in local schools to have a child evaluated.
Strong parent-child bonds, good nutrition, adequate sleep, and a safe, nurturing environment at home and school will help ensure that children have the best chance of developing as they should.