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Cognitive Development: Infants and Toddlers

Infants and toddlers usually follow predictable patterns in how they grow and learn. This lesson will help you understand typical cognitive development, or how infants and toddlers develop thinking skills. You will learn about developmental milestones and what to do if you are concerned about a child’s development.

  • Identify typical cognitive developmental milestones from birth to age 3.
  • Demonstrate developmentally appropriate expectations.
  • Discuss what to do if you are concerned about an infant’s or toddler’s development.



Infants and toddlers are born ready to learn. They learn through cuddling with a caregiver, listening to language, experimenting with sounds, moving their bodies, tasting foods, and exploring their environments. Their brains go through amazing changes during the first three years of life. This lesson will highlight cognitive development milestones for infants and toddlers.


Infants’ and toddlers’ thinking skills grow as they interact with the world and people around them. The key to healthy brain development is through nurturing and responsive care for a child’s body and mind. As you learned in the first lesson, brain development is strongly influenced by the child’s experiences with other people and the environment. Therefore, supporting their cognitive development is critical for brain growth. As infants and toddlers develop, they begin to understand and predict how things work: they open and close a cabinet door over and over, they fill and dump a cup of water in the water table, they bang a spoon on a high chair to hear the sound. 

Watching an infant or toddler make new discoveries is truly exciting. Think of how amazing it is the first time an infant stacks blocks (and knocks them down) or the first time a toddler pretends to read a book to you. The chart below highlights infant and toddler cognitive development. Keep in mind that individual differences exist when it comes to the specific ages at which infants and toddlers meet these milestones and that each infant and toddler is unique. As you may have already learned in other courses, milestones provide a guide for when to expect certain skills or behaviors to emerge. Think of milestones as guidelines to help you understand and identify typical patterns of growth and development or to help you know when and what to look for as young children mature. As a family child care provider, you can use information about developmental milestones and what you learn from families, to create high-quality interactions, experiences, and environments for infants and toddlers.

Infant & Toddler Cognitive Developmental Milestones

2 months
  • Pays attention to faces
  • Begins to follow things with eyes 
  • Looks at or watches a toy for short periods of time
4 months
  • Reacts to seeing breast or bottle when hungry
  • Shows interest in their own hands
  • Follows toy from side to side or up and down with eyes and sometimes by turning their head
  • Waves arms at toys
6 months
  • Closes lips or pushes bottle or breast away when finished eating
  • Brings things to mouth
  • Shows curiosity about and reaches to get things of interest
  • Begins to pass things from one hand to another
9 months
  • Engages in social games like peek-a-boo
  • Tries to get a toy that is out of reach
  • Bangs a toy on a table or the floor
  • Holds a toy in each hand at the same time; may try to bang toys together
12 months
  • Explores things in different ways like shaking, banging, throwing
  • Finds hidden things easily
  • Puts things in a container, takes things out of a container
  • Copies gestures like waving bye-bye
  • Understands the word “no” and may pause briefly or stop
  • Bangs two things together
15 months
  • Starts to use things correctly (like drinking from a cup, brushing hair)
  • Stacks two or more blocks
  • Looks at the right picture or thing when it is named
  • Drops two small objects into a container one right after the other
  • Scribbles on paper with a crayon after watching an adult
18 months
  • Knows what ordinary things are; for example, telephone, brush, spoon
  • Points to get the attention of others
  • Shows interest in copying simple chores like sweeping or wiping the table
  • Can follow one-step verbal commands without any gestures; for example, sits when you say “sit down”
  • Scribbles on own
24 months
  • Uses one hand to hold a container while the other hand removes the lid
  • Plays with multiple toys at the same time
  • Points to several body parts when asked to identify
  • Uses knobs, buttons, and switches
  • Builds towers of four or more blocks
30 months
  • Pretends objects are something else like a bowl as a hat.
  • Uses simple problem-solving skills
  • Follows two-step directions like, “Pick up your shoes and put them in the closet”
  • Identifies one or more colors
  • Describes a drawing, even if just a scribble
  • Points to self in mirror when asked “where is (child’s name)
36 months
  • Draws a line or circle once shown
  • Identifies actions in picture books (eating, sleeping, playing)
  • Strings items onto sting or shoelace
  • Avoids touching hot objects after a warning
  • Puts on loose clothing independently
  • Screws and unscrews jar lids or turns door handles
  • Builds towers of more than six blocks

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2022).

Cognitive development is a unique process specific to each infant, toddler, and family. Many factors influence cognitive development, including genes, events during pregnancy or birth, and aspects of the child’s environment. A family may wonder about a young child’s cognitive development and feel uncertain about what they are observing and what to expect. As a caregiver, take the opportunity to build a trusting relationship and learn from each child’s family, observe carefully to learn about the each child’s development, and then consider offering families additional information about their child’s development. In your role as an infant toddler caregiver, you may have to sensitively include information about possible warning signs that could indicate a developmental delay.  

The Kids Included Together website,, can be a valuable resource for you, as can be the Developmental Milestones and Act Early information located on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, These are some possible developmental warning signs for infants and toddlers:

Possible Warning Signs for Infants & Toddlers

Young Infants

  • Does not watch things as they move
  • Does not bring things to mouth

Mobile Infants

  • Does not try to get things that are in reach
  • Has difficulty getting things to mouth
  • Does not play any games involving back-and-forth play (i.e., peekaboo)
  • Does not seem to recognize familiar people
  • Does not look where you point
  • Does not transfer toys from one hand to another
  • Does not learn gestures like waving or shaking head
  • Loses skills they once had
  • Does not search for things they see you hide


  • Does not copy others
  • Does not point to show things to others
  • Does not know what to do with common things, like a brush, phone, spoon
  • Does not follow simple directions
  • Does not play pretend or make-believe (at 3 years)
  • Loses skills they once had

Ultimately, if families are concerned about their child’s development, they should talk to their pediatrician about their concerns. The pediatrician can perform developmental screenings and possibly refer the child to the appropriate specialists. Families should also contact their statewide Early Intervention Program (for children under age 3). These programs will provide a free evaluation of the child’s development. This can help the child get the services and help he or she needs. The video below was developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and offers tips for identifying and acting on suspected developmental delays.


Just as children’s bodies grow throughout infancy and toddlerhood, their brains are growing, too. You will see major changes between birth and 3 years in a child’s thinking skills. Watch this video to learn about milestones for infants and toddlers.

Cognitive Development for Infants and Toddlers

Watch the range of cognitive development from birth to age three.


Understanding developmental milestones will help you know what kinds of learning experiences to offer the infants and toddlers in your care. Based on your knowledge of development, you can ensure that your interactions and activities are appropriate for individual children. Remember, milestones are markers that let us know a child is growing in a healthy way. As an infant and toddler caregiver, do the following to support developmental milestones: 

  • Give infants and toddlers the safe space they need for movement and discovery (areas for climbing, crawling, pulling up, etc.). 
  • Offer safe, developmentally appropriate materials for exploring (foam blocks, board books, musical instruments, containers for sorting and filling, etc.). 
  • Provide a consistent, nurturing relationship with each infant and toddler.  
  • Read about the stages of development, especially for the ages of the children you serve. 
  • Post developmental milestone charts for reference and visual reminders. 
  • Recognize that children need different things from you as they move through the developmental stages. 
  • Observe children and document their progress on a regular basis to determine where they are developmentally so you can both support and challenge their emerging skills. 
  • Remember that children are unique and progress at different rates and that one area of development may take longer than other areas. 
  • Consult with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator if you feel concerned about how a child is developing. Then share your observations and concerns, along with resources, with the child’s family. You may want to encourage them to make an appointment with their health-care provider to learn more about their child’s development.


Observing infants and toddlers can help you see where they are developmentally, which is important as you plan learning experiences for them. Read, review and complete the Stages of Development Observation activity. Share with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.


It is important to understand and remember developmental milestones. Review the Cognitive Developmental Milestones posters and use them as a reference in your work with children and share them with families. You will find separate posters for infants and toddlers.


Cognitive skills:
The mental skills or behaviors that help children access information, solve problems, reason, and draw conclusions
Developmental delay:
This may be suspected when children do not meet developmental milestones at the expected times; delays can occur in any area of development
Developmental milestones:
A set of skills or behaviors that most children can do at a certain age range
Developmental screening:
A tool used to help identify children who are not developing as expected and who may need supports; screening can be completed by health-care providers, teachers, or others who know both the child and child development well


True or false? Cognitive developmental milestones let you know when certain skills and behaviors will develop.
Which of the following is a possible warning sign concerning an infant’s or toddler’s cognitive development?
A parent asks how you support developmental milestones in your family child care home. You respond by saying…
References & Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Developmental milestones  

Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center. (n.d.). 

Eileen Allen, K., Edwards Cowdery, G. (2014). The Exceptional Child: Inclusion in early childhood education (8th ed.). Wadsworth Publishing. 

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (n.d.).

Track your Child’s Developmental Milestones. (2011). [Brochure]. Missouri First Steps, Early Intervention. 

Zero to Three. (2021).