Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part series on childhood development milestones. Next month the series focuses on preschool-age children.
Walking, talking and sitting up
A closer look at the developmental milestones of infants and toddlers
By Rob Levey
While most agree no two children are alike, research shows there is a pattern of developmental progress all infants and toddlers should follow.
Such progress is generally broken down into four main developmental stages, and within each stage, specific milestones exist.
Gross motor development
Relating primarily to body posture and large movements of the limbs, first-year gross motor developmental milestones include the ability to sit up by the age of 8 months, pointing to indicate something that is wanted or needed by 9 or 10 months, and walking by 16 months.
However, as with other developmental milestones, Infant Toddler Behavior & Development Therapy Services’ Dr. Carol Andrew cautioned parents against comparing their infants’ progress directly with that of another child.
“These represent basic statistical tendencies,” said Dr. Andrew, who noted developmental milestones should be viewed as general guidelines only. “Children come in all different tendencies and abilities.”
Dr. Eric Vance, associate medical director at Seacoast Mental Health Center in Portsmouth, who specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry, agrees. He said if a child only lags behind in one developmental area, but appears fine in others, “there is probably nothing to worry about.”
For parents who still may worry about their child’s development, Dr. Andrew added, “If something is truly wrong, it will become obvious within a short period of time.”
Fine motor development
Fine motor development refers to a child’s ability to engage in complicated manual tasks.
Noting the importance of a parent playing with their baby to help develop fine motor skills, especially in the first year or two, Dr. Andrew expressed concern regarding toys primarily technological in nature.
“I think they’re a bad idea,” she said. “I think baby toys are best when one action gives one reaction — infants can start making those connections — but toys that have all those lights and sounds, I think, are making children passive and inhibiting their fine motor skills.”
According to Dr. Vance, though, there is “a balance to strike” for parents.
“There’s no harm in [electronic toys] to an extent, because kids will eventually be moving toward the world of computers,” he said. “In moderation, they are probably helping in meeting the 21st century realities that will exist for them.”
However, Dr. Leslie Couse, associate professor of education at the University of New Hampshire, said parents should be wary of “scripted toys” generally tied to the marketing of a movie or TV show that claim to have a developmental benefit.
“Typically there is little scientific evidence that supports their claims,” said Couse, who added that their primary purpose is to simply promote a brand.
She cited additional studies that show too much TV in the first two years negatively affect childrens’ long-term ability to appropriately maintain their attention span or amuse themselves.
As for specific milestones, children should be able to use a spoon for feeding and pick up a piece of cereal, for instance, between their thumbs and fingers by the end of the first year.
According to experts, first-year speech developmental milestones include the ability to emit and imitate recognizably different consonant sounds by 12 months of age, while by 18 months of age a toddler should be imitating and saying anywhere from 5 to 10 words or more.
As for how parents can aid in their toddler’s ability to speak, Dr. Ellen Wheatley, administrator for the Child Development Bureau within the Division for Children, Youth, and Families for the state of NH, said it is imperative to talk to them.
“Read to them, talk to them while you’re cooking or folding the laundry,” she said.
Dr. Couse agrees and refers to such actions as “bathing children in language.”
“Describe what you are doing, name the toy you are holding, draw your child’s attention to what is happening around them,” she added. “By doing this, you are teaching them about the world around them so they understand language and giving them opportunities to practice words [and] express themselves.”
According to research, other speech developmental milestones include frequent use of short sentences by 30 months of age and the ability to verbally relate experiences by the age of 3.
However, Dr. Couse said it is important for parents to keep in mind developmental milestones are generally in a two- to six-month range.
“It’s not about getting there first,” she said.
Referring to the development of the concept of self and how to interact with others, first-year milestones include responding to simple words such as “no” and “bye” and the ability to engage in basic play with caregivers.
By age 2, toddlers should generally engage in “pretend play” and imitate the actions of others, while at 30 months they should begin to express some interest in playing with other kids.
By age 3, experts say a toddler should actively play with a variety of toys, including puzzles, books, crayons and blocks, and interactive games.
As for social developmental warning signs, experts point to a toddler who by age of 3 is either not expressing many emotions and/or expresses little interest in playing with other children their own age.
According to Dr. Andrew, though, it is important parents not overanalyze or over-schedule their kids.
“Children need to learn in a particular sequence,” she said. “You don’t want a kid to be burned out by kindergarten.”
With both parents working in many families, childcare providers play an important role in determining a child’s developmental progress.
However, according to Sarah McDowell, center director of Creative Years Child Development and Learning Center in Nashua, childcare providers are not babysitters.
“We’re always working on fine and gross motor development, social skills, and language,” said McDowell. “It’s built into our curriculum...We teach basic life skills.”
According to Dr. Wheatley, one measure parents may use to distinguish between child-care providers is if they are nationally accredited through the National Association for the Education of Young Children as well as through the state.
She said parents should also make a point to visit with several child-care providers on more than one occasion.
“Watch to see how the children interact with the teachers and if they’re given opportunities to express themselves,” she said.
Get to know your child
Regardless of any other external factors, experts agree it is the behavior of a parent that will best predict a child’s developmental outcome.
According to Dr. Andrew, “The first social connection infants make is with the face and voice of their parents.”
To create such a connection, Dr. Vance said parents must “show a lot of affection — both physically and verbally.”
He said other things a parent can do to aid in their child’s development include setting up predictable and consistent routines as well as to focus on rewarding children for positive behaviors.
Referencing what all parents eventually learn, Dr. Couse said, “There is no parenting manual.”
“You will not know all the answers,” she added. “Parenting is developmental, too.”
According to Dr. Andrew, perhaps the best thing a parent can do is “follow the child’s lead — not some grandiose plan.”
“Development is not a race, it’s a process,” she said. “You just have to enjoy the ride.”
Rob Levey is a development and communications associate at Seacoast Mental Health Center and a freelance writer.