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.

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What defines a toddler?

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.

  • Quiz: Is It Time to Start Potty Training?

How can I teach my toddler basic social skills?

Don't expect your toddler to be a social butterfly at this age. Toddlers may enjoy the company of others, but most engage in parallel play; they will play next to each other, but they won?t really interact. Interactive play comes when toddlers are a little older or reach the preschool years, but the toddler years are still a great time to introduce basic social skills. Teach your tot the importance of taking turns, but don?t be surprised if he has a hard time with sharing -- that's appropriate at this age. And if biting is a concern -- either because your own child has exhibited this behavior or because your child has been on the receiving end -- know that kids who bite usually do so out of frustration over not being able to communicate what they're feeling, and they will grow out of biting once they're able to express themselves better. Experts recommend different strategies for dealing with biters, including ignoring what seems to be a call for attention, teaching toddlers other ways to deal with frustration (perhaps by saying, "Help!" or "I'm mad!"), showing extra concern for the child who was bitten, and offering biters a snack to chomp on instead.

How can I put a stop to bad toddler behavior?

You might put your sweet, calm baby to bed one day and wonder where the loud little monster who wakes up the next morning came from. Toddlers are notorious for sudden rages, stubbornness, tantrums, meltdowns, and other unpleasant behavior. Fortunately, there are several strategies for dealing with difficult toddler behavior. Many parents start giving time-outs to toddlers at around 18 months, so that the child has some time alone to begin to understand the consequences of bad behavior, or to take an enforced break from whatever situation is causing the behavior. If you decide to discipline with time-outs, the appropriate amount of time for a child to be alone in a designated spot is one minute for each year of her life; for example, a 2-year-old would get a two-minute time-out. Some experts dispute the usefulness of time-outs, however, and encourage positive discipline, a technique credited to parenting author Jane Nelsen. With positive discipline, parents encourage and praise good behavior instead of punishing bad behavior.

"So much of misbehavior is kids needing attention. They don't understand that's what they need, so they gravitate to negative behaviors because they've learned from past experience that those behaviors work very effectively," explains Amy McCready, a discipline expert and founder of Positive Parenting Solutions. She suggests stopping bad behavior by addressing a toddler's need for both emotional connection and power. "[With] a lot of the power behaviors that we see, like tantrums, back talk, attitude, and refusing to cooperate, the child is saying, 'You are not the boss of me.'" Extra time with your child, along with time spent teaching new skills, can help a toddler feel more connected and more in control, thereby diminishing bad behavior. Another discipline method that some pediatricians recommend is the "extinction" method, in which parents ignore each instance of certain misbehaviors. Whatever your discipline style, it's important to understand that your toddler usually can't control the impulsive behavior that drives you crazy. "Always keep your child's developmental level in mind when you set limits, and don't expect more than he's capable of achieving," says the AAP in Caring for Your Baby and Young Child.

  • Watch: Disciplining Kids of Different Ages

How can I keep my toddler safe and healthy?

Toddlers love to explore, but it?s up to parents and caregivers to help them understand what is safe and what is not, and to keep them from harm. Make sure that your home is a completely safe environment for your children. ?From [ages] 1 to 4, the number one health risk for a child is accidents, in the home, with Mom present,? Dr. Meeker says. ?One day, get down on the level of your 1-year-old and look around the house. Look at lamp cords, electric outlets, curtains and shades, the stairs. Look at every area where your child could hurt himself, and then figure out how to protect him.? This means gating off areas with hot stoves and ovens, preventing access to staircases, covering electric outlets, and keeping sharp objects and small choking hazards out of the reach of wandering toddler hands. Make sure that your toddler is safe in the car, even if he is no longer in an infant seat. The AAP recommends that children sit in rear-facing car seats until they are at least 2 years old. If you want to upgrade your infant car seat, choose a larger convertible seat so you can keep your child facing backward for as long as possible, and then switch the seat to face forward when your little one reaches the appropriate age or maximum weight.

In addition to helping your toddler stay safe, take steps to ensure that he stays healthy. He won?t need to visit the doctor for well visits as often as he did when he was a baby, but it is just as important to keep up to date on his vaccinations, to know when to call the doctor if something doesn?t seem right, and to monitor his general development. Now that he?s developing a full set of teeth, schedule the first dental appointment, or at least brush his teeth regularly. If your toddler is in day care or just spending more time around other children, you might notice he?s getting sick more often. This is normal, so encourage your whole family to form good, healthy habits early, like washing hands frequently and avoiding the sharing of bottles or sippy cups.

What's the best way to structure my toddler's time?

Structured activities aren?t needed every day, but that doesn?t mean it?s best to keep toddlers sitting around the house. It?s never a good idea to let your toddler sit in front of a screen for too long. The AAP recommends no TV-watching for the under-2 crowd, and strict time limits (at most two hours a day) for toddlers older than 2. Give your toddler opportunities to interact and learn in the real world instead. Enroll your toddler in nursery school or preschool, sign up for a select weekly activity, or join a playgroup to give your child a kick-start in kindergarten prep and in essential life skills. Toddlers enjoy learning arts and crafts, playing with musical instruments, and being read to aloud, and all these activities can help stimulate your child?s brain development. Physical activity is very important during the toddler years, so make sure that she has enough opportunities to burn off excess energy. Age-appropriate activities can help a toddler establish independence, learn social skills and develop relationships with people outside the family, and begin to love exercise.

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