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Toddlers: A developmental overview

All children vary in their rate of development in each area - movement, communication and getting along with others - so this information is meant only as a general guide. It's important, too, not to expect more of your child than he is yet capable of, or it's just frustrating for both of you.

Eighteen months to two years

In the toddler stage, you face the challenge of living with a child who is trying to be independent but is still a bit scared of it all. As a result, there are sudden shifts in emotions, and tantrums. "No" seems to be your child's favourite answer. He wants help, but he doesn't want it. He can be clinging and afraid you'll abandon him, but the next minute may want nothing to do with you. You need lots of patience, and your child needs lots of praise and encouragement as he tries to do things for himself. And toddlers learn by doing. There's no "good" or "bad" about it - they just want to try new things, so make sure your child is supervised.

Routines help in getting through the day, although you shouldn't follow them so closely that they cause battles. Be flexible by giving her easy, limited choices ("the brown or blue pants?") and let her do as much as possible, like feeding herself. You may find she orders people around, saying things like "You're not supposed to do that." It's all part of becoming her own person.

Two years

By age two, he can play by himself and concentrate on a task. More and more, he'll pretend when he plays. He loves to run, jump, climb, go up and down stairs, throw a ball... This kind of activity helps him gain control over his body and handle his frustrations. Activities like music and reading can be soothing. Your child will likely be happy to play near other children, but not necessarily with them. Encourage your child to share, but don't force sharing if he's not ready.

Your child is using approximately 50 different words and can name most everyday objects. He can use two-word sentences, like "more milk" or "pretty bird." An adult should be able to understand your child's talking about half the time by now.

Two-and-a-half to three years

By now, you'll have a real sense of your child's personality. She also has more self-esteem and confidence - she's not as afraid of abandonment, now, and is generally optimistic and cheerful. That won't keep her from expressing her opinions, though, which is a healthy part of growing up.

She'll be more sociable by now, and capable of some play with other children, although she's still not great at sharing. Help her begin to learn to take turns, and ask for things she wants. She likes building things, fingerpainting, using play-doh and so on. She's getting better at pretend play, too.

You'll be happy that there are fewer tantrums these days, because she can express herself and her feelings better with words. She can label her feelings, like "I'm mad," or "I'm tired." She's also beginning to understand other people's feelings. And she has more understanding of what "no" means. Your toddler will likely have lots of fears and, whether they make sense to you or not, be understanding, and say things like, "It won't hurt you, but I can see that you're scared." Changes in routine may upset her, as well. She'll probably be attached to a favourite cuddly toy or blanket.

Physically, your child can control her movements better: balance along a straight line, alternate feet when going upstairs, walk backwards, walk on tiptoes, climb over furniture, use a spoon and fork, take lids off jars, complete a simple puzzle... She can probably undress herself but often still needs help dressing. She can also take on small responsibilities, like picking up toys - make it sound like fun. Around now, your child will be learning to use the toilet, too.

Around age three your child can use three- to six-word sentences, and even strangers can understand her 75 to 90 per cent of the time. She asks lots of questions and can tell you about things she's done. She also understands "now" and "later" (but not "yesterday"), and understands the number two (and maybe the number three), such as when you say, "give me just two."

It's important that you (and, separately, your partner) have a special time with your child each day. Maybe it's when you read a story, or take part in pretend play, or help with bathtime. This is the time to really focus on your child and be a warm, sympathetic listener.

All children vary in their rate of development in each area, such as movement, talking and getting along with others, so this information is meant only as a general guide. It's important, too, not to expect more of your child than she is yet capable of - or it's just frustrating for both of you.

Things to remember about the toddler years

  • It's time to start setting some limits beyond safety when your child is a toddler. You and your child's primary caregivers should agree on what they are, so you can be consistent. They should make sense and really matter. A few rules like "no hurting others," "be gentle," should be set. If you have too many limits, or they become too trivial, everyone will get frustrated. Let your child know what the expectations and limits are, and stick to them. Be firm - and consistent. And it's a good idea to remind your child of the expectations and limits before beginning a new activity or going out somewhere.

  • Children respond much better to limits when they feel loved and noticed as part of a warm, caring relationship. Try giving directions in a positive way, such as "Please close the door quietly" instead of "Don't slam the door." Notice and praise good behaviour. This can build your child's self-esteem and reduce her need to battle with you all the time.

  • It takes time for all children to learn to make friends and get along with others. These social skills will improve as the child learns to talk better and control his movements more. Playing with your child and getting two-way communication going in a happy, playful way help prepare your child to be with others. You can even play-act ways of dealing with new situations that the child will be facing.

  • It's a good idea to start leaving your child with a new caregiver for just short times for a couple of weeks before you need full-time care. Stay with your child and the caregiver for a little while each day, for the first few days, to help your child adjust. This also lets you learn more about daycare. Stay a little less time each day.

  • Preparing for outings by bringing a child's favourite toy and a snack can be very helpful. Talk about where you're going and what you'll be doing, and how you expect her to behave (like, "Stay with Mommy"), so your child has an idea of what to expect. Also be careful about the time of day you go - children need their snacks and naps. When possible, leave the child at home or with a sitter if you think the outing will be more than she can handle.

  • Routines are important for children. A child learns to expect what is going to happen next, and knowing this gives him a feeling of control. Bedtime routines, especially, can make life simpler and more pleasant for everyone. There should be a regular bedtime hour, and the routine should include calming things, like having a bath or reading a book. To help him learn the routine, tell him ahead of time what the next step will be.

  • Children will do the darndest things, and faster than you can imagine! They are busy exploring the world around them, and sometimes this gets them into mischief. Make sure your toddler is in a safe environment, and never alone for long.

  • All children break rules at times, and how you respond will depend on the situation and your child's age. You need to think about what's appropriate for the situation and for how your child is feeling. Misbehaviour is often a result of your child being upset - she doesn't know how to communicate what's bothering her, so it comes out other ways. She isn't acting that way to make you mad. Try to figure it out, and what to do, instead of losing your temper. Was she bored with you? Was she excitedly trying new things? Understanding your child's feelings may help you control your emotions and guide her better.

  • Your child needs to be able to rely on you and know that you are there when needed. A secure child will more eagerly explore the world around him. If you notice that your child is having some difficulty, stop what you're doing and go to him to help. If your child is finding it hard to be part of the group, one idea is to give him a toy related to the group's play, to help him join in.

  • Parenting is a tough job, and parents need to support each other.

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