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Understanding Development: Infants and Toddlers

Understanding child development is a protective factor against child abuse and neglect. In this lesson, you will learn about typical development. You will also learn developmentally appropriate expectations for children’s behavior.

  • Describe typical child developmental milestones.
  • Identify developmentally appropriate expectations for children’s behavior.
  • Identify risk factors that make children more likely to experience abuse or neglect.



You have already learned that understanding how children develop and learn (i.e., “child development”) is a protective factor against child abuse and neglect. Why do you think this is true? What are the risks of not understanding child development? If we don’t understand child development, we are likely to think a child should act older than he or she is. We might put children in situations that are too challenging for them. This can lead to the caregiver, as well as the child, getting frustrated. The child doesn’t understand what we want, and we don’t understand why the child won’t “behave.”

Understanding child development is a protective factor because it helps us recognize when a child needs extra help. If we do not understand child development, we might become frustrated instead of recognizing an opportunity to scaffold or strengthen a child’s experiences. When we get frustrated, we do not use our best thinking. We are less able to problem-solve, use new practices, think creatively, and be patient. We may be less able to support the children who need our help the most.

Let’s begin by thinking about some common behaviors you might see every day in programs:

  • Solomon is a young infant. He cries for long portions of the day.
  • Dante is almost ready to start crawling. He gets frustrated and cries every time he cannot reach something he wants.
  • Flora has pulled every toy off the shelf and keeps going back for more. She is always right behind you every time you try to start cleaning up. She doesn’t seem to want to play with the toys. She’s just really interested in touching everything.
  • You told Hilary it was time to get a diaper change. She yelled, “No!” and ran away from you.
  • Zoe is having lunch in a highchair. She says, “All done” and starts throwing peas on the ground. She barely ate anything.
  • Patrick screams, “No! I do!” when you try to help him put his coat on. As other children begin going outside, Patrick begins to scream and cry.

Based on your experiences with young children in or out of programs, do these scenarios ring true? Have you seen them happen? Have you experienced them? If you have spent time in programs, you have likely seen some or all of these behaviors. They are reflections of typical child development. We all go through stages as we grow, and certain behaviors can be expected at certain stages. This does not mean that all behaviors are easy for us as adults to deal with. It does mean that we can be prepared to recognize behaviors as reflections of growth and help children develop and mature. You will learn more about this in the Cognitive course.

Let’s take look at how children typically develop from the ages of birth to three. The information on this table is compiled from various sources including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Ages and Stages Questionnaires (ASQ). You can find this information in an easy-to-use checklist form in the Apply section.

Infants & Toddlers Development Chart

  • Begins to smile at people
  • Can briefly calm himself (may bring hands to mouth and suck on hand)
  • Tries to look at parent
  • Coos, makes gurgling sounds
  • Turns head toward sounds
Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)
  • Pays attention to faces
  • Begins to follow things with eyes and recognizes people at a distance
  • Begins to act bored (cries, fussy) if activity doesn't change
Movement/Physical Development
  • Can hold head up and begins to push up when lying on tummy
  • Makes smoother movements with arms and legs
  • Smiles spontaneously, especially at people
  • Likes to play with people and might cry when playing stops
  • Copies some movements and facial expressions, such as smiling or frowning
  • Begins to babble
  • Babbles with expression and copies sounds he or she hears
  • Cries in different ways to show hunger, pain, or being tired
Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)
  • Lets you know if she or he is happy or sad
  • Responds to affection
  • Reaches for toy with one hand
  • Uses hands and eyes together, such as seeing a toy and reaching for it
  • Follows moving things with eyes from side to side
  • Watches faces closely
  • Recognizes familiar people and things at a distance
Movement/Physical Development
  • Holds head steady, unsupported
  • Pushes down on legs when feet are on a hard surface
  • May be able to roll over from tummy to back
  • Can hold a toy and shake it and swing at dangling toys
  • Brings hand to mouth
  • When lying on stomach, pushes up to elbows
  • Knows familiar faces and begins to know if someone is a stranger
  • Likes to play with others, especially parents
  • Responds to other people's emotions and often seems happy
  • Likes to look at self in mirror
  • Responds to sounds by making sounds
  • Strings vowels together when babbling and likes taking turns with parents while making sounds
  • Responds to own name
  • Makes sounds to show joy and displeasure
  • Begins to say consonant sounds (jabbering with "m," "b")
Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)
  • 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
Movement/Physical Development
  • Rolls over in both directions (front to back, back to front)
  • Begins to sit with support
  • When standing, supports weight on legs and might bounce
  • Rocks back and forth, sometimes crawling backward before moving forward
  • May be afraid of strangers
  • May be clingy with familiar adults
  • Has favorite toys
  • Understands "no"
  • Makes a lot of different sounds like "mamamama" and "bababababa"
  • Copies sounds and gestures of others
  • Uses fingers to point at things
Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)
  • Watches the path of something as it falls
  • Looks for things he or she sees you hide
  • Plays peek-a-boo
  • Puts things in her or his mouth
  • Moves things smoothly from one hand to the other
  • Picks up things like cereal o's between thumb and index finger
Movement/Physical Development
  • Stands, holding on
  • Can get into sitting position
  • Sits without support
  • Pulls to stand
  • Crawls
  • Is shy or nervous with strangers
  • Cries when parent leaves
  • Has favorite things and people
  • Shows fear in some situations
  • Hands you a book when he or she wants to hear a story
  • Repeats sounds or actions to get attention
  • Puts out arm or leg to help with dressing
  • Plays games such as peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake
  • Responds to simple spoken requests
  • Uses simple gestures, like shaking head "no" or waving "bye-bye"
  • Makes sounds with changes in tone (sounds more like speech)
  • Says "mama" and "dada" and exclaims "uh-oh!"
  • Tries to say words you say
Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)
  • Explores things in different ways, like shaking, banging, throwing
  • Finds hidden things easily
  • Looks at the right picture or thing when it is named
  • Copies gestures
  • Starts to use things correctly; for example, 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 finger
  • Follows simple directions like "pick up the toy"
Movement/Physical Development
  • Gets to a sitting position without help
  • Pulls up to stand, walks holding onto furniture
  • Make take a few steps without holding on
  • May stand alone
  • Likes to hand things to others as play
  • May have temper tantrums
  • May be afraid of strangers
  • Shows affection to familiar people
  • Plays simple pretend, such as feeding a doll
  • May cling to caregivers in new situations
  • Points to show others something interesting
  • Explores alone but with parent close by
  • Says several single words
  • Says and shakes head "no"
  • Points to show someone what she or he wants
Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)
  • Knows what ordinary things are for; 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"
Movement/Physical Development
  • Walks alone
  • May walk up steps and run
  • Pulls toys while walking
  • Can help undress
  • Drinks from a cup
  • Eats with a spoon
  • Copies others, especially adults and older children
  • Gets excited when with other children
  • Shows more and more independence
  • Shows defiant behavior (doing what he or she has been told not to do)
  • Plays mainly beside other children, but is beginning to include other children, such as in chase games
  • Points to things or pictures when they are named
  • Knows names of familiar people and body parts
  • Says sentences with two to four words
  • Follows simple instructions
  • Repeats words overheard in conversation
  • Points to things in a book
Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)
  • 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 instructions such as "Pick up your shoes and put them in the closet"
  • Names items in a picture book such as a cat, bird, or dog
Movement/Physical Development
  • Stands on tiptoe
  • Kicks a ball
  • Begins to run
  • Climbs onto and down from furniture without help
  • Walks up and down stairs holding on
  • Throws ball overhand
  • Makes or copies straight lines and circles
  • Copies adults and friends
  • Shows affection for friends without prompting
  • Takes turns in games
  • Shows concern for a crying friend
  • Understands the idea of "mine" and "his" or "hers"
  • Shows a wide range of emotions
  • Separates easily from mom and dad
  • May get upset with major changes in routines
  • Dresses and undresses self
  • Follows instructions with two or three steps
  • Can name most familiar things
  • Understands words like "in," "on," and "under"
  • Says first name, age, and sex
  • Names a friend
  • Says words like "I," "me," "we," and "you" and some plurals ("cars," "dogs," "cats")
  • Talks well enough for strangers to understand most of the time
  • Carries on a conversation using two to three sentences
Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)
  • 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 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 handle
Movement/Physical Development
  • Climbs well
  • Runs easily
  • Pedals a tricycle
  • Walks up and down stairs, one foot on each step

As you read the milestones, did you notice any behaviors that might frustrate or challenge adults? This table can help you remember that behaviors like biting, mouthing everything, tantrums, not following directions, and saying “No!”can be normal parts of the infant and toddler years. As adults, we have to be prepared to respond positively and in ways that teach. You’ll learn more about how to do that in the next two lessons.

Remember, these milestones tell us what children typically do at certain ages. They are not hard and fast rules. Individual children will vary a great deal in when and how they reach different milestones. If you have a concern about a child’s development, talk to your trainer, coach, or administrator.

Understanding Temperament

Temperament influences how each of us interacts with the world and the people around us. We are born with certain temperament traits or styles, and temperament is thought to be consistent across a life span. Here are nine temperament traits that you might see in infants and toddlers (Thomas, Chess, & Birk, 1968):

  • Activity level: Is the child always moving or sometimes sitting still?
  • Regularity: Do children naturally have consistent schedules for eating and sleeping or are they more variable?
  • Distractibility: Does the child focus for periods of time or shift attention?
  • Approach to new things: Is the child cautious in new routines or experiences?
  • Adaptability: Can the child adjust to new people or situations?
  • Intensity of reactions: How does the child respond to situations?
  • Threshold of responsiveness: How much stimulation does it take for a child to respond?
  • Quality of mood: Is the child generally happy or sad?
  • Attention span and persistence: How much time does a child spend on something despite distractions?

Take a minute to reflect on your own temperament. How do you define your temperament traits? How does understanding temperament help you understand your own behaviors and the behaviors of children?

Temperament researchers also have identified three temperament types that summarize these traits (Thomas, Chess, & Birch, 1968). The three temperament types are:

  • Adaptable: These are “easy” babies. They are open to new situations, have a moderate activity level, and are generally happy.
  • Feisty: These babies have a high activity level and usually strong responses to new stimuli. They might be considered energetic, assertive, and full of emotion.
  • Cautious: These babies need time and support to feel comfortable in new situations. They might be considered timid or serious.

Now take a minute to think about your own temperament type. Which of the three do you relate the most to? Do you find it easier to work with individuals (including babies) who share your own temperament type? If you have a feisty temperament, you might find it harder to engage and connect with cautious babies. If you have a cautious temperament, you might find yourself challenged by the energy level of feisty babies. Knowing your own temperament lets you step back and recognize these challenges or tensions as part of your personal interaction style. This lets you take steps to prevent stressful interactions between yourself and infants and toddlers.

How can you use an understanding of temperament in your work to prevent child abuse and neglect? First, understanding temperament helps you remain calm and see frustrating situations as potential personality differences. Second, you can use your understanding of a child’s temperament to come up with solutions to problems that work for them. Here are a few ways you can use temperament in your work:

Tips for Children with Cautious Temperaments:

  • Provide plenty of space and time for the child to get comfortable. Encourage families to stay as long as possible to help children transition into the room.
  • Avoid forcing eye contact or getting in the child’s face. Approach children slowly and give them time to warm up to you. When approaching a child to assist in self-care tell the child what you are going to do to support them prior to taking actions (e.g., “You have yogurt on your cheek, I’m going to help you wipe the food off your face.”).
  • Minimize changes to schedules and routines.
  • Encourage children to bring comfort items such as a favorite blanket or teddy bear.
  • Comfort children when they become upset. Spend time sitting together with an infant or toddler and watching others play.
  • Encourage infants to form primary attachments with a caregiver in the program. Make sure this adult is consistently in the room and available for the infant.
  • Provide a prompt to initiate transition time. Discuss with the child when an upcoming transition will occur (I.e., “In 5 minutes, it will be time to clean up for lunch.”).

Tips for Children with Feisty Temperaments:

  • Provide lots of opportunities for movement. Let them help turn the pages of stories. Give them extra time to relax before a nap.
  • Provide opportunities for exploration. Stay close when introducing new or exciting objects. Help the child learn to explore safely.
  • Do not punish intense reactions. Rather comfort the child: give hugs, rock the child, and help him or her work through emotions.
  • Support children in recognizing their emotions so that in the future they will learn to identify their emotions and cope when strong emotions are experienced. Validate children’s emotions by acknowledging without judgment which characteristics of their emotion they are expressing with their body and behavior.
  • Step in when needed to help a child work through difficult interactions with other children.
  • Establish daily routines that will help the child feel more secure and promote self-regulation skills.
  • Allow for transition time between activities. This gives children time to finish what they are working on and prepare them for change (I.e., “In 5 minutes we’re going to be cleaning up to go inside. If you are wanting to go down the slide before we go in now is the time.”).

Children At-Risk for Abuse and Neglect

There are three categories of children more at-risk for child abuse and neglect: young children, children with disabilities, and children with challenging behavior. Why do you think these children are at an increased risk? Generally, these children might have a difficult time communicating, controlling their emotions, following directions, or getting along with others. The adults around them might get frustrated easily or not know how to help the child. This can put the child in a dangerous situation. We must be careful to remember this does not mean that the child causes the abuse and neglect. The child is never to blame. It also does not mean that only children in these categories are abused or neglected. Rather, we must remember to provide extra support to families whose children meet these characteristics.

Children under the age of 4 are at the greatest risk for child abuse and neglect. Can you think of reasons why this might be the case? When we think about the developmental milestones described above, we might see reasons. These children are least able to communicate their wants and needs to us. They are also not developmentally ready to solve complex social problems, regulate their behavior or emotions, and follow complicated directions. All of this leaves them vulnerable to negative interactions with adults who do not understand development.

When children do not meet the milestones described above in predictable ways and at predictable times, we can experience stress. We may not understand the child’s communication, we may not know how to meet the child’s physical needs, or we may doubt our competence. All of this can leave a person feeling helpless and confused. This stress puts children with developmental delays or disabilities at greater risk for child abuse or neglect.

Children with severe and persistent challenging behavior are also at a greater risk for abuse or neglect. When children demonstrate severe and persistent challenging behavior, adults often feel personally challenged. It’s not unusual to feel like a child is “pushing your buttons.” Adults may not know what to do and in a moment of crisis might resort to unacceptable punishment practices.

Special Concerns for Infants and Toddlers: Prolonged Crying

Crying is a normal part of infancy. All babies cry. Between the first month and fourth month of life, many infants become more fussy and crying increases. Some experts refer to this as the “Period of PURPLE Crying” (Barr, n.d.). This does not mean babies turn purple from crying. Rather, it is an acronym describing the characteristics of this stage. You can visit the Purple Crying website to learn more:

Even healthy infants sometimes cry for hours during this stage. Sometimes it can be hard to comfort the infants. They might seem inconsolable. Crying tends to be worse in the evenings, but you might experience prolonged periods of crying with infants in your program. This can be very frustrating, and it might make you doubt your ability to care for the infant. It’s not unusual to begin feeling stress and to need a break. The best thing you can do is to realize that this is a phase in the infant’s development, and it will end.

Shaken Baby Syndrome

Shaken Baby Syndrome (also known as Shaken Impact Syndrome) is a serious form of abuse that usually occurs when a parent or caregiver shakes an infant out of anger or frustration, often because of prolonged periods of crying. Severe shaking causes an infant’s head to move violently back and forth resulting in serious or fatal brain injury. There is often no external evidence indicating a child has been shaken. The following signs and symptoms may indicate shaken baby syndrome:

  • Altered level of consciousness
  • Drowsiness accompanied by irritability
  • Coma
  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Dilated pupils that do not respond to light
  • Decreased appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Posture in which the head is bent back and the back arched
  • Breathing problems and irregularities
  • Abnormally slow and shallow respiration
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Death

Shaken Baby Syndrome is completely preventable. Caring for an infant can present challenges and frustrations, however, it is never acceptable to shake a baby. The following tips may help prevent abuse:

  • Take a deep breath and count to 10
  • Take time out and ask another caregiver to take over momentarily
  • Call someone for emotional support
  • Communicate with parents-–there may be a medical reason why the baby is crying
  • If you suspect a child has been shaken, call emergency medical services


Now let’s think about how knowledge of child development looks in a classroom or program. Often knowledge of child development comes across as realistic expectations for behavior. Having the right expectations for children of various ages ensure that we are providing appropriate interactions and responses based on their age and level. Watch this video to learn more about realistic expectations.

Understanding Infant and Toddler Development

Learn about realistic expectations for infants and toddlers

Read the following statements from staff members. On the left, you see unrealistic expectations. On the right you see realistic expectations. Which classrooms or programs do you think feel like better places to be for children? Which staff members do you think feel less stressed at the end of the day?

Unrealistic Expectations

Realistic Expectations

  • Marchia cries all the time. She is spoiled rotten and thinks she needs to be held all the time.
  • When Marchia gets upset and cries, we know she’s trying to tell us something. We try to figure out what’s wrong and help soothe her.
  • Decklen bites other children because he is a mean-spirited kid.
  • Decklen hasn’t figured out how to ask for what he wants yet and bites when he gets frustrated. We need to watch closely and step in before that happens.
  • These kids need to learn to sit cross-legged and listen to a story. They’re going to preschool next year, so they’ve got to get this.
  • The kids love to choose stories to read during free play and to sit on adults’ laps for stories. It’s so fun to read and have conversations about the books.
  • Caldwell is so clingy. He hides behind my legs and cries when I try to make him sit with another adult. He’s got to get over his shyness.
  • Caldwell is pretty nervous whenever a new program assistant comes in the classroom. We make sure his primary caregiver is always close by and helps him feel comfortable.


How can you make sure your expectations of children are appropriate?

  • Continue to learn all you can about child development throughout your career. The Virtual Lab School has courses that will help you learn more about cognitive, physical, and social development. You will also learn about how children develop communication skills and a healthy sense of self.
  • Gather information about child development to share with families. The handouts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the Apply section are a good place to start, but your program or curriculum might have other resources you can share.
  • As a new employee, spend time observing children in the program where you work. This will help you begin to understand what is typical for your age range. Also visit classrooms or programs for children who are older or younger. This will help you take the long view on development. If you expect the same thing from 2-year-olds that you see happening in the preschool classroom, you are setting yourself up for frustration.
  • Remember what you have learned here when you get frustrated. It can be frustrating when a toddler says “No” or bites, but this is a part of growing up. Many of the behaviors that challenge adults are very typical parts of development. If you have a concern about a child’s behavior, talk to your trainer, administrator, or coach. He or she can help give you perspective on whether the behaviors are typical.
  • Ask for help when you need it. We all need new ideas and support. When you are feeling frustrated or unsure about what to do for a child, ask a trainer or co-worker for ideas. This is a great way to build your own social connections and professional knowledge.


Read the scenarios in the Reframing Activity below and indicate whether you think the scenario represents a realistic expectation for the child’s behavior or an unrealistic expectation. Then write what you think a staff member should say that reflects realistic expectations. After rewriting realistic expectations you’re encouraged to share your work with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


It is important to find resources that can help you understand child development. Talk to your Training & Curriculum Specialist or director about resources available in your curriculum. Many curricula, like Teaching Strategies Gold, provide a continuum of milestones. Talk to your T&CS or director about materials that are available for you and for families. If you would like additional resources, there are many options for you to use.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have developed excellent guides. These can be great resources to share with families, but they are also a nice tool for you to keep in the classroom and refer to regularly. Review and review the Milestone Checklists below for the age group of children with whom you work.


Child Development:
Changes that occur as children grow from birth through adolescence. The changes can be physical, mental, emotional, or social
Developmentally Appropriate:
Knowledge and practice based on how young children develop and learn, what is known about an individual child, and what is culturally important
Developmental Milestone:
A skill or behavior that children typically develop around a certain age
An educational term that likens the process of building a skill in a child to the temporary structures used in building a house; in teaching, it can involve giving hints or prompts and gradually reducing these supports over time


Clyde thinks 3-month-old Aubrey should sleep through the night and be on a regular nap schedule during the day. Is this a realistic expectation for behavior?
Lucia, a toddler teacher, begins her day with a large group circle time activity. She begins by going over the calendar, talking about the weather, and then reading a story. She expects the children to remain seated the entire 30-minute group time and to participate when she asks them to. Is this a realistic expectation for behavior?
18-month-old Sydney is cutting rear molars. His mother gets very angry when he puts toys in his mouth. At drop-off she sees him begin to chew on a toy. She takes it away and says, “No.” If Sydney were in your classroom, what might you say or do to help Sydney’s mom understand that this is typical child development?
A group of 20-month-olds is running in circles around the teacher. She tells them to “Go find something to do.” Is this a realistic expectation for behavior?
13-month-old Jadyn has been playing happily with stacking cups. When Chip crawls over and grabs a cup, Jadyn lets out a yell and bites him on the arm. Biting is typical behavior for her age, so the teacher should just let it continue happening. True or false?
References & Resources

American Association of Neurological Surgeons. (2022). Shaken baby syndrome.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). Violence Prevention.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). Learn the signs, act early: Developmental milestones. Available from

Center for the Study of Social Policy. (2018). Strengthening Families: A Protective Factors Framework.

Military Family Advocacy Programs. (n.d.).

Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. Inc. (2022). Ages and stages questionnaire (ASQ).

Seibel, N. L., Britt, D., Gillespie, L. G., & Parlakian, R. (2006). Preventing child abuse and neglect. Zero to Three: Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families.

Thomas, Chess & Birch (1968). Temperament and Behavior Disorders in Children. New York University Press

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2021). Child Maltreatment 2020.

ZERO TO THREE: Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families. (2006). The Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect.