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December 21

Understanding Child Development: Milestones, Stages, and Growth

From infancy to adulthood, childhood development is a long process. While most animals reach their full size and adult instincts in a few weeks to a few years, it takes us up to 25 years to hit our final development milestone. This process involves physical growth, brain development, and emotional maturity. 

Because your child is changing in many ways that you can’t see, and sometimes in ways that are hard to understand, it’s important to know who can support you and your child. Pediatricians, child development professionals, and community health resources are your partners in making sure your child is growing well and reaching their milestones.

The Foundations of Early Childhood Development

Early childhood development happens from birth until about 5 years old. Babies and toddlers change and learn incredibly fast during these early years, and a lot of that development will impact the way they learn and continue growing later.

Brain development is especially fast in the first three years of life. While it may not seem like much to watch a baby learn to roll over, sit up, begin walking, or go from random sounds to full words, these changes take a lot of work! Their little brains are figuring out how the world around them works, how their bodies work, and how other people work. This time of development sets the stage for how they will form relationships and learn new information as they get older.

With regular visits to a pediatrician, parents can keep an eye on their baby’s development. Doctors and other early childhood development staff, such as you might find at a community health center, help parents understand what milestones their kids are on track for and how to support their growth.

Mapping the Stages of Child Development

Although kids are always changing, there are child development stages that medical professionals use to identify the main thing happening during certain ages. This childhood development chart is not an exact checklist. It is more of a guide that parents and pediatricians can use when talking about a child’s growth.

Infancy (birth – 2 years)

We expect to see the following developmental milestones for infants:

  • Continual weight gain
  • A growing interest in their environment
  • Beginning to notice how their hands, feet, arms, and legs work
  • Making sounds and starting to use words
  • Showing a range of emotions
  • Reacting to familiar people differently than new people

Early Childhood (2 – 6 years)

We expect to see the following developmental milestones for toddlers and preschoolers:

  • Rapidly progressive language skills, both the ability to speak and to understand
  • Starting to notice other children and wanting to play with them
  • Beginning to learn concepts like cause and effect
  • Development of gross motor skills like hand/grip control, running, and body awareness
  • More weight and height gain
  • Imaginative play

Middle Childhood (6 – 11 years)

We expect to see the following developmental milestones for elementary kids:

  • Reading and writing skills
  • Ability to learn and remember information, math facts, and communication skills
  • Building social relationships and learning how to compromise
  • Growing sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair
  • Learning to deal with big feelings and thoughts without throwing tantrums
  • Growth happening more in spurts

Adolescence (12 – 18+ years)

We expect to see the following developmental milestones for teenagers:

  • Physical and hormonal changes in puberty
  • Stronger non-family social relationships
  • Ability to understand more complex information
  • Desire to develop an independent identity and find their own fit in the world
  • Individualized height and weight gain based on multiple factors

Throughout all of these milestones, it’s important for parents to bring their children to a pediatrician for regular wellness checks. The pediatric staff of community health centers, including everyone at our West Grove Pediatrics Office, are trained in childhood development assessment. We do not just examine children to chart their growth; we also make sure parents have the education and resources that help them keep their kids on a healthy journey.

Celebrating Developmental Milestones

There are a ton of child developmental milestones in those early years. It seems like babies and toddlers are doing something new every day! While the milestones spread out a little as kids get older, they are still fun to celebrate. Some of the major developmental milestones to mark for your child include:

  • First words and steps for babies
  • Potty training and language skills for toddlers
  • Reading and writing skills for preschoolers
  • Meaningful friendships and personal interest skills for elementary kids
  • Personal responsibility and future planning for adolescents

Taking note of these milestones will come in handy at your child’s well checks. Your pediatrician will chart your child’s progress, celebrate with you, and identify any areas of concern that you can watch out for. 

Fostering Emotional and Social Development

A huge amount of childhood development is going on in places that we can’t see. They are growing emotionally and socially as much as they are physically, but we can’t measure that with a scale. For this kind of growth, it helps to know what to look for.

Emotional development in children starts when they begin reacting to things other than being hungry or tired. In older babies and toddlers, you can see their emotions in how they react to other people, how they feel about what you tell them, and how they respond to changes throughout the day. Young children act out their emotions physically by crying, throwing their bodies around, using their loudest voices, and sometimes with hitting and kicking. 

For healthy emotional development, it’s important for parents, older siblings, and teachers to both model and teach emotional regulation. The goal is to help kids learn to use words to express their emotions so that they can get better control over their bodies. We all experience a huge range of emotions, and the way we express them will make a big difference in how we handle good times, hard times, and interacting with other people.

Social development for children is not too different from emotional development. Babies start out mostly wanting to interact with the people who are most familiar. Older babies don’t usually play much with other kids, but will instead play next to them and look to adults for attention or help. Social awareness of other children happens in the toddler and preschool stages. This is the time when children start learning to share, cooperate, compromise, and make friends outside their family. 

As kids get older, their social skills and emotional skills will be very connected. Kids who are learning to express themselves with words will be able to communicate with their friends and resolve conflict faster. Their personalities will also affect their social relationships. Elementary kids and adolescents will develop a much stronger sense of who they like to be around and how many friends they want to have. 

There is no perfect science to emotional or social development. Everyone is unique, but what pediatricians are looking for is some ability to control emotions by elementary school and a few non-family friendships.

Encouraging Language and Cognitive Development

Language development in children is a really fun milestone for parents. Babies will watch our mouths closely and try to mimic the shapes they see. As they start to talk, their own little language is adorable. We encourage parents to write down the funny way their toddlers and preschoolers mispronounce words for their memories. Language development really starts with those babbling sounds that babies make. As they advance to toddlerhood, parents should be tracking a handful of common words their baby can say. By preschool, we are looking for full sentences and a growing vocabulary. By elementary school, it’s common for kids to constantly ask what words mean or how to spell something.

Cognitive development in children, much like emotional and social, is going on in the brain where we can’t really see it. But we can see the results. Cognitive development describes the changes in a baby or child’s ability to think and process the world around them. When babies first discover how to use their hands, or stand up and walk, or fit a shape into a hole, that’s all cognitive development. As preschoolers learn to dress themselves, elementary kids learn to write and type, and adolescents learn to debate a topic, cognitive ability is growing.

In the early childhood stages, the cognitive measures we use include words like sensory-motor learning, gross motor skills, and fine motor skills. Then we move into abstract thinking, where kids are really forming their own ideas. Cognitive development can be a tough one for parents to track, especially if their child seems to be doing things differently than their peers. At LCH, we practice something called Integrated Care, which means that our pediatricians work closely with other doctors to support healthy child development. If a child’s cognitive growth is outside a normal range for their age, we may refer the family to our Pia Center for Behavioral Health in our West Grove office for an assessment. All of our providers work together to make sure each child has access to the best care possible for their growth and development.

Supporting Physical Development

Your child’s physical development includes their growth in both height and weight. But it also includes things like their motor skills, which means being able to control things with their hands and use their feet effectively.

Healthy physical development in children includes steady growth and steady development of physical skills. Three things that have a huge impact on physical development and the cognitive skills that come with it are nutrition, sleep, and exercise. Kids need to have a good diet of protein, whole grains, vegetables, and fruit for their bodies to grow well. They also need about 9-11 hours of sleep per night and several opportunities to move their bodies throughout the day.

For good sleep, kids need a set bedtime every night, and it’s very important to turn off screens at least an hour before that. Most kids get recess time at school, so encourage your child to run around with their friends as much as possible during that time. Also, sports programs are a great way to get kids interested in fun exercise. Even in the off season, they can use what they learned to practice drills or organize games with friends.

Influential Factors on Child Development

No two children, even in the same family, grow exactly the same. While the child development chart above offers an overview of what kids most commonly do at certain ages, everyone moves at their own pace.

Some influences on child development are out of our control. For example, genetics are mostly responsible for how tall someone will be. Environment, which may or may not be in our control, also plays a part in development. Where you live, your access to transportation and other resources, the people in your home, and your community will all have some influence over development. Access to healthcare is another factor. When doctors notice something that is slowing down a child’s development, they can help the parents figure out what to do next. Nutrition, rest, and exercise, as mentioned before, also have an influence over a child’s ability to grow and learn.

Community health centers like LCH are dedicated to the well-being of everyone in our neighborhoods. We support parents and children in taking advantage of the most positive influences on child development. Our healthcare providers, behavioral health specialists, and social assistance professionals work closely with parents to identify and overcome anything that might be in the way of their child’s healthy development.

The Role of Child Development Assessment

During pediatric appointments, doctors and healthcare staff perform child development assessments that track and chart how each child is growing. When kids come to regularly scheduled appointments, we have the best records available for seeing how a child is growing and developing.

These assessments are our first tool in catching any delays or other concerns in a child’s development. If we notice a possible issue with a child’s cognitive, physical, social, or emotional growth, we can implement early intervention services. These resources are added to a child’s routine pediatric care so that they can either get back on track with development or get additional care for their needs. Some common childhood assessments include ADHD Screenings, Autism Screenings, Vision and Hearing Screenings, and testing for chronic health conditions. 

Empowering Parents with Resources and Activities

Parents are one of the biggest influences on child development. The love, comfort, and interaction you provide to your child is key to healthy growth and development. You are their first teacher!

Healthy child development starts during pregnancy. Pregnant women should get regular prenatal care and talk to their providers about how to support healthy growth for their baby before birth. Our Women’s Health Center in the West Grove location is a great resource for women who are pregnant or planning to have a baby.

Once your baby is born, you can support their development in many ways:

  • Talk, sing, and interact with your baby as much as possible
  • Use colorful, sturdy toys that encourage babies to be curious
  • Make sure your baby or child has room to explore their environment safely
  • Provide social opportunities to your child, especially with other children
  • Get outside to take walks, play on the ground, and enjoy nature
  • Encourage your child to explore their own interests as they get older

Call LCH or visit one of our locations if you would like help exploring other ideas and options for supporting your child’s growth. The number one thing you can do as a parent is to love your child and promote their healthy development.