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A Year to Cheer

There's not a parent in the world who hasn't been struck with awe by how quickly developmental milestones occur during a child's second year -- and who hasn't occasionally wished that they'd slow down just a little. "Within this amazing year, the baby who was dependent on you for everything evolves into an independent little person," says Craig Ramey, Ph.D., coauthor of Right From Birth: Building Your Child's Foundation for Life (Goddard Press, 1999).

Yet even as we marvel at our child's accomplishments, we're also constantly checking out other babies. Indeed, there's often a terrified part of us that fears our own child is lagging behind. "Parents are often puzzled, and concerned, by the huge developmental differences among children of the same age," says Dr. Ramey. At 15 months, whereas one child could be tearing around the playground, another could be taking her first wobbly steps. The good news is that both scenarios are perfectly normal.

"Much of this variability is physiological," says Dr. Ramey. "Before you can walk, for instance, your coordination, leg muscles, and sense of balance all have to develop. For each child, these body parts -- including the brain -- grow at their own unique rate."

The majority of parents, then, need not fret. "Fifty to 75 percent of children hit their milestones between 1 and 2," Dr. Ramey notes, "so don't worry if your child isn't precisely on time." Here are the basic breakthroughs you can expect -- and celebrate -- during this developmental boom year.

At the beginning of this year, most babies can say only one or two words. "But they understand dozens more," says Andrew Meltzoff, Ph.D., head of the developmental psychology program at the University of Washington in Seattle and coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib (William Morrow, 1999). If you ask your child for his teddy bear, for example, chances are he'll hand it to you, even if he isn't able to say the words.

As the year progresses, children begin to use "protowords" -- made- up words that link sound to meaning. For example, at 18 months, my daughter Zoe said "nummies" whenever she wanted food and "go cah" to go outside.

But the most remarkable part of language development is what experts call the "naming explosion," which typically occurs between 18 and 21 months. "Seemingly overnight, a child goes from knowing a few words to labeling everything in sight," says Dr. Ramey. "Some children learn as many as 50 new words a week." By the time your child is 2, he'll be able to ask and answer questions, speak in simple sentences, say "please" and "thank you," and name as many as 350 objects.

At 1, your baby will likely be able to wave bye-bye, point to what he wants, and begin to use a cup and spoon. And even if he has not yet taken his first steps, as the months fly by, he'll proceed from cruising around the coffee table to wobbling to scaling his crib and zipping from room to room.

As his physical coordination improves, "he'll learn to navigate stairs, scribble with crayons, and build a sturdy block tower," says Dr. Ramey. This is the time to rethink, and reinforce, your babyproofing strategies. "Physical ability often dovetails with a fierce need for independence," says Dr. Ramey. Not only will your child be capable of more sophisticated and dangerous feats, he'll also be much more likely to pursue them.

Although first words and first steps are obvious accomplishments, a young child's cognitive growth is more subtle because so much of it is a result of quiet observation. "Many parents are surprised at how much their 1-year-old comprehends," says Dr. Meltzoff. "Most can understand a wide variety of facial expressions and gestures, like throwing kisses."

Happily for parents, babies have some delightful ways of showing off what they know. Nancy Pelant, of St. Michael, Minnesota, loves to watch her 13-month-old son, Nathan, making the hand movements to "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider," even when she isn't singing the song. "When I start to sing the words, he's thrilled that I understand what he's thinking," says Pelant.

Like Nathan, babies this age not only imitate people but also look to them as sources of information. "If there's a loud sound, for instance, your baby will examine your face to see if you're smiling or frightened," says Dr. Meltzoff. And around the 18-month mark, your baby becomes aware of himself as well as of others. "Put a dab of lipstick on your 18-month-old's nose, and when she sees herself in the mirror, she will touch her nose, not the nose of her reflected image, as she would have done at 14 months," says Dr. Meltzoff.

Even at 1, many babies enjoy the company of other children. "When they see a friend, they may point at her or shriek with delight," says Dr. Meltzoff. They can begin to have playdates, too, but don't expect them to play together in the conventional sense. "Babies this age don't know how to share, so parents need to step in with extra toys and distractions should squabbling and grabbing start," says Dr. Meltzoff.

It's at this time that the seeds of empathy begin to grow. By 2, your toddler will play independently with a fellow toddler -- and comfort her if she gets hurt. You will be the beneficiary of the same compassion. Eighteen-month-old Cavan Crowley, of Winchester, Massachusetts, for example, is clearly the sensitive type. "If I make a sad face, Cavan gives me a hug," says his mom, Lee. "Sometimes I make those faces just to get that hug."

In addition to understanding that other people have emotions, babies this age become aware that those emotions and opinions may differ from their own. "In fact, a toddler knows that you and he may not see eye-to-eye on a number of issues and has no qualms about experimenting with just what happens when your opinions collide," says Dr. Meltzoff.

This can be an infuriating part of normal growth. "But it's more endearing when you look at it as curiosity," says Dr. Meltzoff. "The 'terrible twos' is really a cognitive exercise. It's a toddler's way of exploring cause and effect, with her parents as the guinea pigs."