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    • Identify typical cognitive developmental milestones from birth to age 3.
    • 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, trying out sounds, stretching on the floor, reaching for objects, tasting foods, and exploring their environments in countless ways every day. Their brains go through amazing changes during the first three years of life. This lesson hightlights cognitive development milestones for infants and toddlers.


    Infants’ and toddlers’ thinking skills grow as they interact with the world and people around them. Their early experiences matter. Consistent, nurturing experiences help infants and toddlers make sense of the world. These experiences literally build brain architecture. As infants and toddlers develop, they begin to understand and predict how things work: they open and close a toy busy box 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 exciting 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 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 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 and recognize people at a distance
    • Begins to act bored (cries, fussy) if activity doesn't change
    6 months
    • Looks around at things nearby
    • Brings things to mouth
    • Shows curiosity about things and tries to get things that are out of reach
    • Begins to pass things from one hand to another
    12 months
    • Explores things in different ways like shaking, banging, throwing
    • Finds hidden things easily
    • Looks at the right picture or thing when it's named
    • Copies gestures
    • Starts to use things correctly (like drinks from a cup, brushes hair)
    • Bangs two things together
    • Puts things in a container, takes things out of a container
    • Lets things go without help
    • Pokes with index (pointer) finger
    • Follows simple directions like "pick up the toy"
    18 months
    • Knows what ordinary things are; for example telephone, brush, spoon
    • Points to get the attention of others
    • Shows interest in a doll or stuffed animal by pretending to feed
    • Points to one body part
    • Scribbles on own
    • Can follow one-step verbal commands without any gestures; for example, sits when you say "sit down"
    24 months
    • Finds things even when hidden under two or three covers
    • Begins to sort shapes and colors
    • Completes sentences and rhymes in familiar books
    • Plays simple make-believe games
    • Builds towers of four or more blocks
    • Might use one hand more than the other
    • Follows two-step directions like, "Pick up your shoes and put them in the closet."
    36 months
    • Can work toys with buttons, levers, and moving parts
    • Plays make-believe with dolls, animals, and people
    • Does puzzles with three or four pieces
    • Understands what "two" means
    • Copies a circle with a pencil or crayon
    • Turns book pages one at a time
    • Builds towers of more than six blocks
    • Screws and unscrews jar lids or turns door handles

    Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013). Developmental Milestones. An electronic resource available from:

    Cognitive development is a unique process specific to each infant, toddler, and family. Many factors influence cognitive development including genes, prenatal events (before or during birth), and aspects of the child’s environment. A family may wonder about their young child’s cognitive development and feel uncertain about what they are observing and what to expect. As a caregiver, you have an opportunity to build a trusted relationship with the child’s family, observe carefully to learn about the child’s development, and 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 website Kids Included Together can be a valuable resource ( And so can the developmental milestones and Act Early information located on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, The table below highlights possible developmental warning signs for infants and toddlers:

    Possible Warning Signs for Infants & Toddlers

    Young Infants

    • Doesn't watch things as they move
    • Doesn't bring things to mouth

    Mobile Infants

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


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


    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.


    To support infant and toddler developmental milestones:

    • Give infants and toddlers the safe space they need for movement and discovery (areas for climbing, crawling, pulling up, etc.).
    • Provide a consistent, nurturing relationship with each infant and toddler.
    • Read all you can about children's developmental stages, especially for ages of the children in your family child care home.
    • Post developmental milestone charts for reference and share these resources with families.
    • Recognize that children need different things from you as they move through their developmental stages.
    • Observe children 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.

    This video, developed by the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, offers tips for identifying and acting on suspectected developmental delays: 



    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. You can review the milestones posters and use them as a reference in your work and share them with families. You will find separate posters for infants and toddlers.


    Cognitive skillsThe mental skills or behaviors that help children access information, solve problems, reason, and draw conclusions
    Developmental delayThis may be suspected when children do not meet developmental milestones at the expected times; delays can occur in any area of development
    Developmental milestonesA set of skills or behaviors that most children can do at a certain age range
    Developmental screeningA 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

    Albrecht, K., & Miller, L. (2001). Innovations: Infant & Toddler Development. Beltsville, MD: Gryphon House.

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013). Learn the Signs, Act Early: Developmental Milestones. Retrieved from

    Early Head Start National Resource Center. Retrieved from

    National Association for the Education of Young Children. Retrieved from

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

    Zero to Three. Retrieved from