Parenting is not as black-and-white as, say, assembling a crib (not that that's so easy!). Although there's no shortage of information about when most babies take their first step or babble their first "mama," there's a myriad of other achievements that get little press. When is baby ready to blow his nose, or ride a trike? Here's a guide to help take the guesswork out of some of these less heralded milestones. Remember that every child is different and we're only offering guidelines. If you opt to do something earlier or later, no points will be deducted from your parenting score!
Cribs, Pacifiers, and Play Dates
Get baby out of your bed and into a crib when he is 3 months old. If you wait too much longer, you might have a difficult time getting him accustomed to sleeping in his own space. (This does not apply, of course, to parents who opt for a family bed.)
Get baby a big-kid bed around the age of 2. To be more precise, when your baby is standing in the crib with the mattress on the lowest setting and the top of the rail hits just below his nipple, it's time to make the move, according to Mark Widome, MD, professor of pediatrics at Penn State Children's Hospital and author of Ask Dr. Mark: Answers for Parents (National Safety Council). At that point, most babies can get a leg over the rail and climb out -- a safety hazard. If your baby isn't a climber, you may opt to let him stay in his crib awhile longer, but be prepared for an eventual jailbreak!
Take baby's pacifier away around 2 to 3 months of age, says Dr. Widome. Of course, there's no reason you have to take the pacifier away at all. While children who are still using a pacifier at 3 or 4 are at risk for speech problems, it's considered harmless in babies. Still, some parents can't stand the sight of an older baby sucking on a binky. If you're in this camp, waiting to take it away may bring on a struggle, so it's best to remove it in early infancy.
Start teaching ABCs, numbers, colors, and shapes when baby is 6 months old. While comprehension won't come for some time, there is no downside to introducing these concepts to very young children. Keep the learning fun and meaningful -- use books, real-life examples (the banana is yellow, the ball is round), and forget the flash cards! "Rather than grill them on letters, sing songs, read books, and say rhymes," says Linda Acredolo, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis and the author of Baby Minds (Bantam Books).
Have a one-on-one play date once your baby can sit up and get a good view of his buddy. "Babies are much more interested in each other than people realize," says Acredolo. "Even at 2 to 3 months, they notice each other. By 9 to 12 months, they are offering each other toys and imitating each other." To encourage friendly interaction and to minimize fighting, have doubles of toys on hand.
Pets, Teeth, and Chores
Get a pet no earlier than age 2. A 2-year-old can look with interest at a fish and will have minimal problems (a few hands in the fishbowl won't hurt anybody), says George Scarlett, PhD, a contributor to Proactive Parenting: Guiding Your Child from Two to Six (Berkley). For pets such as cats and dogs, it's best to wait until a child can be gentle and considerate, probably not until he's at least 3 or 4. Don't expect him to be able to take on much in the way of responsibility, like feeding or walking -- especially without your prompting and guidance -- until he's around 7 or 8, or even older.
Have drop-off play dates by age 3. However, your child's maturity, temperament, and familiarity with the other child are important factors. If your preschooler doesn't seem comfortable playing without your being there, suggest that the play date take place at your house next time.
Start chores when baby is 18 months old. Putting away toys, dropping clothes in the hamper, or bringing napkins to the table are all good first chores for toddlers. While a toddler will need help at first, you'll be surprised at how capable your child will become as she does more. As she gets older, add more chores, such as watering plants, wiping up spills, making her bed, and carrying plastic dishes to the sink.
Tell your toddler about the new baby in your belly sometime during the second trimester. At this point, you start to show, and your chance of miscarriage has passed, says Corinna Jenkins Tucker, PhD, assistant professor in the department of family studies at the University of New Hampshire. "Young children are very concrete, so whatever their age, be sure to tell them what their role will be and what they can do to help once the baby arrives," she says. Tucker, expecting her second child, took her 3-year-old son with her to her ultrasound to help make her pregnancy more understandable for him.
Take a baby to the dentist within six months of his getting his first tooth, or no later than his first birthday, according to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children see a dentist at age 3, earlier if there are problems such as staining or abnormal tooth development. Which is right for you? Consult your pediatrician, or err on the side of caution and go when your child is younger to ensure the best preventive care.
Slides, Swings, and Sippy Cups
Give baby his first trip down the slide unattended at 15 to 18 months, says Jody L. Jensen, PhD, associate professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas at Austin. Once a baby starts to walk well, he has the ability to control his trunk and make adjustments in his body posture, which allows him to slide and land at the bottom safely on his own.
Put baby on a "big kid" swing three to six months after he learns to walk. According to Jensen, once children have mastered the task of walking, they are better at "reactive balance," which means they can adjust tension in their arms to maintain balance and control. Just make sure the swing is fairly low to the ground, and keep your pushes gentle to avoid frightening accidents.
Buy your baby a ride-on toy once she can sit steadily. Some kids may be advanced enough to coordinate their feet to propel it forward or backward; others may simply enjoy the ride if you push them.
Buy your baby a tricycle at 18 months. While he may not be able to properly coordinate the motion of pedaling until he's older, he may still enjoy sitting on the trike and holding onto the handlebars.
Stop using sippy cups when your child is 18 months old. By that age, a child should be able to drink from a half-full cup without spilling too much. While you may still want to use the ubiquitous sippy in the car or in the playroom, try to give your child a chance to drink lidless, at least at the table. Just keep a sponge handy.
Santa, Nose Blowing, and Separation
Visit Santa when your child is 3 or 4. While some younger children can handle a turn on the bearded fat guy's lap without a meltdown, many find the experience overwhelming and scary. Follow your child's lead -- if he seems worried or upset, put it off for another year.
Go on a trip without your child before baby is 5 months old. "At this age, babies don't miss you when you are away," says Scarlett. "In many ways, babies are more resilient to separation than toddlers, whose greater ability to picture you means they have a greater ability to miss you." The earlier you start leaving baby -- and get him accustomed to a caregiver and to the idea that you will return -- the easier future separations will be for both of you. Plus, you and your partner deserve some time away!
Teach kids to blow their nose at age 3. "Many kids around that age are interested in acting like big people, imitating big people, and pleasing big people. So if you demonstrate by example and do it in unison, they may get the hang of it," says Dr. Widome.
Let an older sibling hold baby when you feel it's safe and appropriate. Obviously, a child needs to have a certain amount of strength, coordination, and guidance to hold an infant. But as long as she is monitored -- perhaps sitting on a couch next to a parent or another adult -- there's no hard-and-fast rule as to when to allow it.
For Older Kids...
Teach children to tie their shoes by kindergarten. According to Jody L. Jensen, PhD, kids should have the cognitive and manipulative skills necessary to start learning between the ages of 4 and 5, although mastery might not come until they're past their fifth birthday. But the more Velcro shoes you buy, and the fewer fine-motor skills you rehearse (writing letters, for example), the longer mastery will take.
Teach kids to ride a two-wheeler as young as age 4. While an older child may be more ready to have the training wheels removed (and may also show better judgment when riding), most 4-year-olds have sufficient balance and the motor development needed to pedal unassisted.
Sign up for swim lessons once your child turns 4. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend swim classes for children younger than 4, primarily because they aren't really coordinated enough to swim on their own yet, and parents may be less vigilant around water because they think their child can swim. Any swim classes for children younger than 4 should be thought of as an opportunity for enjoyment and adjustment to water -- not instruction.
Let your child answer the phone at age 4, because that's when 100 percent of a child's speech can be understood by strangers, according to Mark Widome, MD. If you want them to take a message, you'll have to wait until they can write and spell, even crudely -- probably not until age 7.
Let a child chew gum at age 5. "Before 3, a piece of gum could still pose a choking hazard. Between 3 and 4, chances are that much more gum will be swallowed than chewed, so age 5 is your best bet," says Dr. Widome.
Start giving a child an allowance during elementary school, when kids start to learn about money and want to spend it. "An allowance is a great tool to help teach a first-grader about saving, setting goals and priorities, and making choices, and it can help you pass on your family's values about money," says Corinna Jenkins Tucker, PhD.
Susan Brody is a writer in Milburn, New Jersey.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.