Overview of Infant, Toddler and Young Children’s Development
Babies experience an extraordinary amount of growth and development during their first year. A newborn grows from a helpless infant to a little person who is gradually able to manipulate things around her all by herself. Seeing an infant’s abilities emerge is an amazing process, so enjoy watching the stages of development build upon each other. As the caregiver, you play an important role in making sure that the baby’s cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being are developing in the best possible way. Babies depend on you for everything! What the baby learns through her interactions with you will make a big difference in how she views and relates to the world around her.
Bright Idea: Infant massage is physical and emotional communication that reinforces bonding and attachment between caregiver and baby, helps to build daily routines which develop an infant’s trust and security around a “typical” day, promotes the infant’s ability to manage state changes, is a tool for parents to help baby through fussy periods and offers a number of health benefits for baby including digestion, sleep, and emotional connection to caregiver. Family Wellness Centers of Community Health Centers (New Britain, Middletown and Meriden) often provide free monthly infant massage workshops for parents. Find “Family Wellness Centers” on Facebook. Hartford Hospital Integrative Medicine Department offers new parent infant massage training.
It is of utmost importance for infants to develop a strong, secure attachment to their primary caregivers (usually Mom and Dad, but could also be grandparents, childcare provider, or someone else). This attachment begins to form at birth and develops over the first 12 to 18 months of life. Babies take part in what is called the “social dance,” where the baby responds to the caregiver by moving her lips, crying, cooing or turning her head toward the caregiver, and in response, the caregiver kisses, holds or talks softly to the baby. The baby’s signals indicate her need for close, physical contact and/or emotional connection with her parent. When this cycle of caring interaction repeats again and again, it helps the infant to form the secure attachment that will support her growth and development throughout childhood and adolescence. Caregivers can facilitate the development of secure attachment by being attuned to their baby’s signals for closeness, comfort, and exploration, and then responding in emotionally-sensitive ways.
Trust is another important experience babies learn from their caregivers. A baby learns to trust when you provide her with all the basic needs (nutritious food, clean diapers, clothing, loving interactions, etc.) predictably, quickly and lovingly. Responding this way will not spoil the baby! Rather, this lets the baby know that she can depend on you to take care of all her needs and that she is an important person to you. Trust enables the baby to feel good about herself, know that she deserves care and protection, and teaches her to appreciate and respect others.
Exploring the World
It is healthy for children to be curious and interested in the world around them. One of the early ways that babies learn about the world is by putting items in their mouths. This is a normal way for babies to explore their world and learn about the many new and interesting objects in their environment. Your job is to make sure all dangerous items are out of babies’ reach.
The strong, secure and trusting attachments that you help children develop in the first year of life set the stage for healthy toddler development. During toddlerhood, a child begins the process of separating from you and understanding that he is a unique person - different from you and all others. His first steps progress to walking and running, enabling him to physically move about the world in new and exciting ways. He discovers things he has never seen before and wants to find out about them by touching, banging, opening, chewing, holding, throwing and looking at them. He is beginning to talk and express his feelings. His language development explodes during the toddler years, although he often gets frustrated because he does not yet have the right words to tell you or ask you something. He also may become distressed because he cannot yet do all of the things he wants to do, either because he doesn’t have the physical skill or he cannot recognize when activities are dangerous to him. Although he is starting to recognize his separateness, his attachment needs remain very strong, and he continues to require close, nurturing involvement from important caregivers.
As toddlers explore their newly-found independence and express their desires, you will likely see the following behaviors surface:
Toddlers have a strong desire to do things on their own, such as dressing themselves, putting on their coats and shoes, or brushing their hair. However, toddlers are often unable to “successfully” accomplish tasks because their bodies, muscles and brains are still growing. This creates high levels of frustration, worry and shame for these young children. Toddlers will frequently cry and/or scream “I do!” or “I want!” When these situations arise, remember that this is normal behavior for toddlers. Just relax, be patient and offer gentle guiding help.
Toddlers’ emerging sense of autonomy leads them to test limits with just about everything. You’ll typically find toddlers wanting to control what they eat, when they go to bed, or which clothes they wear (or not wanting to wear clothes, coats), and refusing to comply or saying “no.” When toddlers test limits, they are learning about who they are and how they should behave. As a caregiver, your job is to remain calm and set clear and consistent limits that keep toddlers safe while at the same time letting them discover more about their likes and dislikes. For example, “Grace, it’s too cold outside to wear shorts. Here are some other clothes for you to choose from.”
Attachment and Exploration Needs
Toddlers are exploring their rapidly developing abilities.. It is important for the caregiver to foster these developments in the context of their relationships. The toddler will need to relate to the caregiver both as a “secure base” from which she can embark on new adventures, while also being a “safe haven” to return to for comfort and safety as needed. Attachment needs continue. However, the child’s emotional signals will shift in flavor and tone along with their changing minds and bodies.
With the help of loving parents and caregivers, most children reach age 3 having developed strong, secure, trusting attachments during infancy and a sense of independence during the toddler years. Over the next few years, preschoolers will continue to rely on their parents and caregivers to help them build upon this foundation. With love, support and guidance, preschoolers will become more confident in their growing abilities and thus take more initiative in their activities. Compared to younger children, preschoolers are more imaginative, play more complex games, use sentences with more descriptive words and better grammar, and complete more difficult gross and fine motor tasks.
Because preschoolers are more confident in their growing abilities, they are more likely to try new activities and test new skills. (This is also known as taking initiative.) However, they are not always very good at the activities and skills they try. When this happens, they may end up feeling less capable than others, especially if they are criticized for their failed efforts. Preschoolers need your constant guidance, support, encouragement and faith in them in order to feel good about themselves and to continue trying new things.
Self-regulation (or, self-control) is an extremely important milestone for preschoolers to achieve. Although preschoolers are better able to control their behavior than toddlers, it’s still hard for them sometimes – especially when they are hungry, tired or frustrated, or when they have to wait for something they want badly. Being a role model and showing preschoolers how to handle frustrating or disappointing situations appropriately helps the children improve their self-regulation skills.
Learning to Get Along with Others
During the preschool years, children learn how to control their behavior and to accept that they may have to wait for things they want (like a toy or a cookie). This is very hard work and requires a lot of guidance, support, love and role modeling of appropriate behavior from adults. To help preschoolers improve their social skills and ability to get along with others, they need lots of supervised opportunities to play with friends. This gives them many chances to practice working together to accomplish goals and resolve conflicts peacefully.
Theory of Mind
During this time, an important capacity is developing, which involves a child’s ability to recognize and appreciate that other people are not only physically separate and distinct, but that they may have a different perspective on the world. For example, it is during this period that a child can begin to understand that someone else may think differently, have different information, and draw different conclusions based on their own experiences. Moving from “egocentrism” (e.g., my view of the world is all that exists) to having a “theory of mind” is a significant achievement and forecasts many other important abilities such as empathy, perspective-taking, collaboration, social consciousness.
Development of Imagination
You’ll find that preschoolers love acting out different roles that they have seen people in their world perform. For example, a child may pretend she is a Mommy with a baby or a postal worker delivering the mail. They may also act out stories they have heard or created on their own. Development of imagination and creativity is an important milestone for preschool children because it allows them to separate themselves from the “real world.” Preschoolers develop their imagination by copying adults, role-playing, participating in pretend play scenarios and acting out wishes and fantasies.
REMINDER! Each child is unique and develops at her own rate. Still, if you think your child is not growing, talking, moving, listening or responding the way she should be, bring your concerns to the child’s health care provider. Noticing and addressing problems as early as possible provides the best chance for improvement.