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    • Identify typical cognitive developmental milestones from birth to age three.
    • 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 everyday. 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. As you learned in the first lesson, early experiences matter. Consistent, nurturing experiences help infants and toddlers make sense of the world. Those experiences literally build brain architecture. 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 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 as they grow. 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

    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
    • Point to one body part
    • Scribbles on his own
    • Can follow 1-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 4 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 3 or 4 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 6 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:

    It's 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 have to transition from one age group to the next.

    Cognitive development is a unique process and is specific to each infant, toddler, and family. Many factors influence cognitive development including genes, prenatal events (i.e., 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, as well as what to expect. As an infant and toddler caregiver, you have an opportunity to learn first from a family and consider offering additional developmental information, including possible warning signs. The Kids Included Together can be a valuable resource for you (, as well as the developmental milestones and act early information located on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, The table below also highlights possible warning signs for infants and toddlers:

    Possible Warning Signs for Cognitive Development Issues for Infants and 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., Peek-a-Boo)
    • 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 once had
    • Doesn't search for things 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 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 three years old 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.


    As an infant and toddler teacher, 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.).
    • Provide a consistent, nurturing relationship with each infant and toddler.
    • Read all you can about the stages of development especially for the ages of the children you serve.
    • Post developmental milestone charts for reference.
    • Recognize that children need different things from you as they move through the 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 yourPUBLIC supervisor, 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, print, and complete the Stages of Development Observation activity. Share with your supervisor, trainer, or coach.



    It is important to understand and remember developmental milestones. You can download and print the Milestones Posters and use them as a reference in your work. 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 pediatricians, 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?


    Your co-worker asks how she can support developmental milestones in her classroom. You respond by saying…

    References & Resources

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

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). 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