Toddlers 101: Understanding Toddler Development

Your baby has become a toddler -- how did this happen so quickly? Find out what to milestones and behaviors to expect during the toddler years.

What defines a toddler?

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A toddler is technically "one who toddles," so once your baby starts moving around on his own two feet, even hesitantly, he is a toddler. Most experts define the toddler years from about 1 to 2 years old. These are years of enormous growth and change; a time for learning many new skills, such as walking, talking, using the toilet, interacting with peers, and becoming independent.

What are the major toddler milestones I should look out for?

Toddlers will amaze you by all the things they are able to do, so look out for a wave of milestones: first steps, first words, and first real interactions through language and nonverbal communication. Of course, the big toddler milestones that every parent looks out for are walking and talking. Toddlers typically take their first steps around their first birthday, though this varies with every child. Normal range for learning to walk is between 12 and 18 months, so don't worry if your child isn't moving around on the same schedule as the other babies on the block. As she grows, your toddler will begin to walk alone, run, and engage in physical activity with objects, such as pulling a toy behind her or kicking a ball. In general, it's best to allow your child to develop basic physical skills without special equipment. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends not using of baby walkers to help babies learn to walk. Instead, try using push-and-pull toys or holding her up and walking around the room with your legs guiding her.

Most children utter their first official word between 10 to 14 months, but your toddler will probably make lots of gibberish sounds before you can recognize an actual word. Instead of stressing about when your toddler is going to speak, look for other ways that your toddler is communicating with you. Is he doing a lot of pointing, head-nodding, or grunting in a certain direction? Toddlers develop ways to get their point across even without using words. Toddlers are also developing social and emotional skills, and they will begin to understand concepts like taking turns, getting others to laugh, and attaching names to their feelings.

What should my toddler be able to do at this age?

Young toddlers (between 12 and 18 months) begin to use words, though just a few, and exhibit other social behaviors, such as imitating others. They start demonstrating some basic life skills, such as feeding themselves with their hands, picking objects up, and in some cases, using a spoon and fork. As toddlers close in on their second birthday, language acquisition increases and they begin forming short sentences. They start exhibiting more physical skills, such as throwing and kicking a ball and walking up stairs. The older toddler begins to demonstrate more gross motor and fine motor skills. Between 2 and 3, most toddlers can jump, walk with a smooth gait, and make simple lines or shapes with a crayon. They will also start to recognize shapes, colors, and letters of the alphabet.

What should I do if I'm worried my toddler isn't developing properly?

If you're concerned that your toddler isn't developing the skills he should be, or if he seems slower than other kids his age, trust your instincts. "The first place to start is with your pediatrician," says Meg Meeker, M.D., a pediatrician in Traverse City, Michigan and the best-selling author of five parenting books. "It's very important to have a pediatrician who is looking for developmental issues as early as 3 or 6 months of age," she says. Schedule an appointment with your child's pediatrician to discuss your concerns as soon as possible. With some developmental delays and disorders, early diagnosis and intervention are crucial for staving off more severe problems. If your doctor thinks everything is okay, but you still have concerns, schedule a follow-up. "Ask your pediatrician, 'Over the next three months, what should I be looking for?'" Dr. Meeker suggests, and then make an appointment to review again. If your child needs further evaluation, find a local Early Intervention center to evaluate his gross motor development, fine motor development, and speech and hearing abilities.

When is my toddler ready to be toilet trained?

Most children are ready to start toilet training around 18 to 24 months of age. If your child is younger than that, introduce the concept of toilet training by talking about the potty and putting a child-size one in your bathroom for her to sit on when you are using the toilet. As she grows, watch for signs of potty training readiness. Is she announcing every time she goes number two in her diaper? Is she obviously uncomfortable in a dirty diaper? If she is aware of what she?s doing and seems to have control over when and where she pees or poops in a diaper, it might be time to start potty training. Do your research to find the right potty training method for your family; some little ones have had success with a long, gentle approach; others, a quick, daylong approach. Although boys and girls have similar needs when potty training, training boys might be slightly more complicated because most train sitting down to pee and then make the switch to standing up. One word of caution: Don't pressure kids to potty train just because other kids their age are already using the toilet. Pressure could only backfire, and make the process take even longer. Let your toddler guide her potty training experience.

Potty Training Girls vs. Boys
Potty Training Girls vs. Boys

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