- Identify typical cognitive developmental milestones from birth to age three.
- 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, reaching for objects, tasting foods, and exploring their environments. Their brains go through amazing changes during the first three years of life. This lesson will highlight cognitive developmental 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, how the brain grows is strongly influenced by a child’s early experiences. Therefore, supporting a child’s cognitive development with consistent, nurturing experiences and interactions 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 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 age 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 an infant and toddler caregiver, you can use this information, what you learn from families, and your own knowledge in the interactions, experiences, and environments you create for infants and toddlers.
Chart: Cognitive Developmental Milestones
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013). Developmental Milestones. https://www.cdc.gov/NCBDDD/actearly/pdf/checklists/All_Checklists.pdf
It is important to know that how infants and toddlers are assigned to classrooms may not reflect the age spans listed above. There are programs that regroup children every six months and those that use multi-age or family-style groupings, which keep children and their teachers together for a longer period of time. It is best practice to minimize the number of times infants and toddlers must transition from one age group to the next.
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 their young child’s cognitive development and feel uncertain about what they are observing and what to expect. As an infant and toddler caregiver, take the opportunity to first learn from a family, and then to consider offering additional developmental information, including possible warning signs. The Kids Included Together website, https://www.kit.org, can be a valuable resource for you, as can the developmental milestones and Act Early information located on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/index.html. The table below also highlights some possible warning signs for infants and toddler development:
Possible Warning Signs for Cognitive Development Issues for Infants and Toddlers
If you are concerned about a child’s development, talk with your trainer so that you can work together to talk with parents about your observations. This may be a difficult conversation, but it can help to ensure that the child is receiving the supports that they need to be successful. With the guidance of your trainer and program manager, you can share information with families about typical child development and let them know you are available to talk. If your program provides developmental screening tools, these can help you start a conversation about your concerns.
Ultimately, if families are concerned about their child’s development, they should talk to their child’s pediatrician about their concerns. Pediatricians can perform developmental screenings and possibly refer the child to 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. This video, developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, offers tips for identifying and acting on suspected developmental delays: https://www.cdc.gov/NCBDDD/actearly/multimedia/video.html
Just as children’s bodies grow throughout infancy and toddlerhood, their brains are growing, too. You will see major changes in a child’s thinking skills between birth and 3 years of age. Watch this video to learn about milestones for infants and toddlers.
Understanding developmental milestones will help you know what kinds of learning experiences to plan in your classroom. 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 an optimal way. As an infant 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 administrator, trainer, or coach if you feel that there might be a concern with how a child is developing.
Observing infants and toddlers can help you see where they are developmentally, which is important as you plan learning experiences for them. Download and complete the Stages of Development Observation activity. Share with your administrator, trainer, or coach.
It is important to understand and remember developmental milestones. Download and review the Cognitive Development Milestones poster and use it as a reference in your work. You may also choose to share the poster with families.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Developmental Milestones. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/
Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center. (n.d.). https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/
Eileen Allen, K., & Edwards Cowdery, G. (2014). The Exceptional Child: Inclusion in early childhood education (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.
National Association for the Education of Young Children. (n.d.). https://www.naeyc.org
Track Your Child’s Developmental Milestones. (2011). [Brochure]. Missouri First Steps, Early Intervention. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/pdf/parents_pdfs/MO-Wic%20Broch_2_English_508.pdf
Zero to Three. (2021). https://www.zerotothree.org