The first five years of a child’s life are fundamentally important. This is when foundation that shapes children’s future health, happiness, growth, development and learning achievement at school, in the family and community and in life in general are laid down.
Research confirms that the first five years are particularly important for the development of the child’s brain. During this period child’s brain develops more and faster than at any other time in his life and the first three years are the most critical in shaping the child’s brain architecture. The early experiences child has – the things they sees, hears, touches, smells and tastes – stimulate their brain, creating millions of connections. They have a direct impact on how children develop learning skills as well as social and emotional abilities.
Child development is the term used to describe the changes in child’s physical growth, as well as her ability to learn the social, emotional, behavior, thinking and communication skills they need for life. All of these areas are linked, and each depends on and influences the others.
Both genes and the environment influence child’s development.
Genes are the blueprint of child’s development and carry information about what the child will look like, how the child might behave their physical and mental health and more. The information in a child’s genes comes from their mother and father.
The environment is the experiences child has in his family, school and the wider community. The environment influences things like child’s language, as well as how independent the child is, how well they bounces back from tough times and how good they are at forming relationships.
As the child develops, genes and environment influence each other. The way child’s genes and environment work together affects their development. For example, how toddler responds to a stressful situation depends on her/his temperament (mostly determined by their genes) and the relationships they have with others in their environment (usually their family or close relatives).
Babies are born ready to learn, and their brains develop through use. So child needs a stimulating environment with lots of different activities that give them plenty of ways to play and learn, and lots of chances to practice what they are learning.
Children’s relationships affect all areas and stages of their development. This is because relationships are experiences. In fact, relationships are the most important experiences in child’s environment because they teach them the most about the world around them. In turn, they shape the way they sees the world.
Child learns about the world both by being in a relationship – for example, when they communicates with the mother – and also by seeing relationships between other people – for example, how mother behave towards her father, how her father behaves towards the mother and how mother behave with other people around the child.
Through relationships, child learns whether the world is safe and secure, whether they are loved, who loves them, what happens when the child cries, laughs or makes a face – and much more. And this learning is the basis for child’s communication, behavior, social and other skills.
A child’s most important relationships are with the mother, other family members and caregiver. These early relationships are the foundation of a child’s healthy development.
Milestones of development
Milestones are specific tasks or skills the child should perform by a certain age. The milestones give a general idea of what child should be doing, but failing to meet a milestone by the recommended age does not mean the child is delayed. One missed milestone doesn’t mean your child is developmentally delayed. Continually missing the milestones for a particular developmental skill is required to be considered a delay. Any concerns about child’s development should be directed to child’s physician for further assessment. Let’s have a look at the milestones of child development.
In the first month, babies are likely to:
- Language: have different vocalizations for pain, hunger, and pleasure.
- Motor: lift head while prone. Keep hands mostly in fists.
- Social: focus on an object and follow it for a bit with eyes.
At 3 months, babies are likely to:
- Language: respond differentially to their caretaker’s voice; babble; respond to singing.
- Motor: hold head up 90 degrees (from prone position). Begins to put hands together, and to bat at objects. Just begins to bring objects to his mouth, but does not yet have a refined grasp.
- Social: spontaneously smile at mother.
At 6 months, babies are likely to:
- Language: start saying nonspecific “ba-ba-ba” and “da-da-da”, and produce one or more vowel sounds.
- Motor: roll over from stomach to back. Can bear some weight on legs, push up on extended arms in a prone position, pull to sit without head lag, and sit with support. Easily reaches for objects. Should be actively using thumb rather than having it tucked into her palm. Can pick up and holds a small object with fingers and get it into mouth, but doesn’t have a pincer grasp yet. Enjoys exploring objects in environment with eyes, hands, and mouth.
- Social: laugh (starts at 4 months). Make good eye contact and smile interactively. May play peek-a-boo. Stranger anxiety may be beginning.
At 9 months, babies are likely to:
- Language: understand simple commands, imitate sounds, and respond to own name. Can use voice inflections to indicate in baby-talk if they have a question or are making statement.
- Motor: sit independently, get to sitting, and stand while holding on. Can bang two cubes together, and grasp objects using thumb and fingers. Can find an object that the child has watched mother hide. Can transfer an object from hand to hand.
- Social: show stranger anxiety.
At 1 year, babies are likely to:
- Language: have said first word, and use “mama” and “dada” to refer to their parents (although often mixing them up!). Respond to spoken requests to identify some familiar objects (“where’s the doll?”). If the one-year-old is very quiet and does not say a variety of consonant-vowel sound productions (mama, dada, baba), a hearing test needs to be done.
- Motor: crawl on hands and knees “creeping”. May begin walking. Have a neat pincer grasp, using thumb and fingertip, and can feed themselves foods using fingers. Can release an object, such as a cube, into a cup. Begin creeping upstairs. Most one-year-olds can pull themselves to stand and lower themselves to sit.
- Social: indicate wants without crying, using pointing or verbalization. Are likely experiencing separation anxiety.
At 18 months, babies are likely to:
- Language: use at least 10 words, and point to at least one named body part. By 18 months, toddlers are likely to have 10 to 20 words. Jargoning is the norm: this is when they speak in what sounds like sentences, but maybe one word is intelligible (“java-da-ba-go-baba-mama.”). They are following verbal directions given without gestures (“go get the ball”, without mothers pointing or looking at it). They can indicate 3 body parts, either on them, mother or a doll (“where is Mummy’s nose?”). They use sounds to get attention. If any baby has not said first word, an evaluation from pediatrician may be requested.
- Motor: walk backward, scribble, and feed self with a spoon without much spilling. Can build a tower of two cubes. If babies are not walking, an evaluation from pediatrician may be requested.
- Social: throw a temper tantrum! Wants to share, but is ambivalent about it. Their separation anxiety may be peaking. Begins to imitate others in play, and may show symbolic play (“pretending”). Learning how to take turns. Should respond to their name, and be able to name someone familiar to them. Does opposite of what is told.
At 2 to 3 years, babies are likely to:
- Language: starts to use short sentences controls and explores world with language, stuttering may appear briefly. Talks, uses “I” “me” “you” Copies parents’ actions, vocabulary of more than 200 words
Motor: jump off a step, rides tricycle, uses crayons, builds a 9-10 cube tower.
Social: Dependent, clinging, possessive about toys, enjoys playing alongside another child. Negativism (2 ½ yrs). Resists parental demands. Gives orders. Rigid insistence on sameness of routine. Inability to make decisions.
At 3 to 4 years, babies are likely to:
- Language: Say short sentences, 896 words, and great growth in communication, tells simple stories, use words as tools of thought, and display a desire to understand their environment, answer questions, be imaginative, and may recite few nursery rhymes.
- Motor: Stand on one leg, jump up and down, draw a circle and a cross (4 yrs) Self-sufficient in many routines of home life.
- Social: Likes to share and uses “we”. Cooperative play with other children, nursery school. Imitate parents. Beginning of identification with same-sex parent, practices sex-role activities. Intense curiosity & interest in other children’s bodies. Imaginary friend.
At 4 to 5 years, babies are likely to:
- Language: talk clearly, use adult speech sounds, master basic grammar, relates a story, knows over 2,000 words (5 yrs)
- Motor: have mature motor control, skips, and broad jumps, dresses self, and copies a square and a triangle.
Social: Prefers to play with other children, becomes competitive prefers sex-appropriate activities.
Importance of play in Child’s development
In the early years, child’s main way of learning and developing is through play. Play is fun for children and gives them an opportunity to explore, observe, experiment, solve problems and learn from their mistakes. They will need parents support and encouragement to do this. But it’s important to try to find a balance between helping them and letting them make mistakes, because finding out for them about how the world works is a big part of learning.
Lots of time spent playing, talking, listening and interacting with parents helps children learn the skills they need for life, like communicating, thinking, solving problems, moving and being with other people and children.
But more than this, play is a great relationship builder. Spending time playing with children sends a simple message – they are important to the parents. This message helps children to learn about who they are and where they fit in the world.
A loving, nurturing relationship helps mother and their children learn a little more about each other every day. As the child grows and develops, their needs will change. The parents learn more about what the child needs and how parents can meet these needs.
Rates of child development
No two children are same, even twins, develop differently – in their own time and at their own rate. Most skills and events happen in the same order, but the age they happen might vary for each child, even for children in the same family.
Some parents worry about when their child will walk, and others worry about why their child isn’t talking yet. Some might be concerned about when their baby will grow her first teeth.
If any parents wonder about whether their child’s development is ‘normal’, it might also help to know that ‘normal’ varies a lot. For example, the normal age range for children to start walking is 8-18 months. So if a child isn’t walking at 14 months, that’s OK.
Warning signs of developmental delays (2 months – 5 years)
Age 2 months: Baby developmental delay warning signs
- Doesn’t respond to loud sounds
- Doesn’t watch things as they move
- Doesn’t smile at people
- Doesn’t bring hands to mouth
- Can’t hold head up when pushing up when on tummy
Age 4 months: Baby developmental delay warning signs
- Doesn’t watch things as they move
- Doesn’t smile at people
- Can’t hold head steady
- Doesn’t coo or make sounds
- Doesn’t bring things to mouth
- Doesn’t push down with legs when feet are placed on a hard surface
- Has trouble moving one or both eyes in all directions
Age 6 months: Baby developmental delay warning signs
- Doesn’t try to get things that are in reach
- Shows no affection for caregivers
- Doesn’t respond to sounds around him
- Has difficulty getting things to mouth
- Doesn’t make vowel sounds (“ah”, “eh”, “oh”)
- Doesn’t roll over in either direction
- Doesn’t laugh or make squealing sounds
- Seems very stiff, with tight muscles
- Seems very floppy, like a rag doll
Age 9 months: Baby developmental delay warning signs
- Doesn’t bear weight on legs with support
- Doesn’t sit with help
- Doesn’t babble (“mama”, “baba”, “dada”)
- Doesn’t play any games involving back-and-forth play
- Doesn’t respond to own name
- Doesn’t seem to recognize familiar people
- Doesn’t look where you point
- Doesn’t transfer toys from one hand to the other
Age 1: Baby developmental delay warning signs
- Doesn’t crawl
- Can’t stand when supported
- Doesn’t search for things that she sees you hide.
- Doesn’t say single words like “mama” or “dada”
- Doesn’t learn gestures like waving or shaking head
- Doesn’t point to things
- Loses skills he once had
Age 18 months: Developmental delay warning signs
- Doesn’t point to show things to others
- Can’t walk
- Doesn’t know what familiar things are for
- Doesn’t copy others
- Doesn’t gain new words
- Doesn’t have at least 6 words
- Doesn’t notice or mind when a caregiver leaves or returns
- Loses skills he once had
Age 2: Developmental delay warning signs
- Doesn’t use 2-word phrases (for example, “drink milk”)
- Doesn’t know what to do with common things, like a brush, phone, fork, spoon
- Doesn’t copy actions and words
- Doesn’t follow simple instructions
- Doesn’t walk steadily
- Loses skills she once had
Age 3: Developmental delay warning signs
- Falls down a lot or has trouble with stairs
- Drools or has very unclear speech
- Can’t work simple toys (such as peg boards, simple puzzles, turning handles)
- Doesn’t speak in sentences
- Doesn’t understand simple instructions
- Doesn’t play pretend or make-believe
- Doesn’t want to play with other children or with toys
- Doesn’t make eye contact
- Loses skills he once had
Age 4: Developmental delay warning signs
- Cannot jump in place
- Has trouble scribbling
- Shows no interest in interactive games or make-believe
- Ignores other children, or doesn’t respond to people outside the family
- Resists dressing, sleeping, and using the toilet
- Can’t retell a favorite story
- Doesn’t follow 3-part commands
- Does not understand “same” and “different”
- Doesn’t use “me” and “you” correctly
- Speech is not clear
- Loses skills he once had
Age 5: Developmental delay warning signs
- Does not show a wide range of emotions
- Shows extreme behavior (unusually fearful, aggressive, shy or sad)
- Unusually withdrawn and not active
- Is easily distracted, and has trouble focusing on one activity for more than 5 minutes
- Does not respond to people, or responds only superficially
- Can’t tell what’s real and what’s make-believe
- Doesn’t play a variety of games and activities
- Cannot give first and last name
- Doesn’t use plurals or past tense properly
- Does not talk about daily activities or experiences
- Does not draw pictures
- Can’t brush teeth, wash and dry hands, or get undressed without help
- Loses skills he or she once had
One missed milestone does not mean your child is developmentally delayed. Continually missing the milestones for a particular developmental skill is required to be considered a delay.
Factors that influence the child’s development
Healthy food gives children the energy and nutrients she needs to grow and develop. It helps develop the sense of taste. And healthy family food and eating patterns in the early years can set up healthy eating habits for life.
Being physically active gets children moving. It develops motor skills, helps thinking process and gives children an opportunity to explore the world. So a child needs plenty of opportunities for active play, both inside and outside.
Child’s health can influence her development. All children get sick at some point – for example, with coughs and colds, earaches or gastroenteritis. These minor childhood illnesses generally won’t cause any long-term problems with development.
But chronic or long-term health conditions like diabetes, asthma, cystic fibrosis or cancer can affect child’s development on which parents has no control. If any child has a chronic health condition, it’s a good idea to talk with a medical specialist (for example, a pediatrician) about how this might affect the child’s development.
Neighborhood and local community
Neighborhood and local community where the child lives influence child’s development. For example, child’s development is supported by having positive relationships with teachers, participating in community activities, and having access to things like playgrounds, parks, shops and local services like child care, schools and health centers .But things like inadequate housing, poor-quality child care or unsafe playgrounds can compromise child’s development.
Being a parent
Parents are always learning. Every parent makes mistakes and learns through experience. It’s OK to feel confident about what parents know. And it’s also OK for parents to admit they don’t know and ask questions – often the ‘dumb’ questions are the best kind!
Physical and mental health of parents is an important part. But with all the focus on looking after a child or baby, lots of parents forget or run out of time to look after themselves. Looking after self will help parents with the understanding, patience, imagination and energy a parent need.
No matter what stage child is at in his development, it’s never too late to start helping the child, work on skills, master new challenges – and build a loving relationship with the child.