Developmental milestones are often simple things: learning the alphabet or tying shoes. But for parents and educators, they’re incredibly valuable.
Milestones provide a general idea of the changes to expect — and when to expect them. They generally reflect the acquisition of social, emotional, physical, and linguistic skills and abilities; they can also offer insights about children’s progress and about possible developmental delays.
While milestones are great indicators of a child’s development, they are far from perfect. After all, children develop at different paces, so it's really impossible to tell exactly when a child will learn a given skill or set of skills. For this reason, it’s important not to be alarmed if your child takes a slightly different course from the one outlined below.
Here are some key milestones to look for in kids from 6 months to 6 years. They’re based on guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Follow this link for a more detailed description of language milestones.
Most babies at this age recognize familiar faces and begin to know whether someone is a stranger.
Babies can respond to hearing sounds by making sounds. Although they are only able to babble vowel noises (“ah," “eh," and “oh"), this is a form of early communication. Tots can convey emotions ranging from joy to displeasure with these early vocalizations.
Around this time, babies also begin to respond to their own name.
Children of this age will demonstrate some curiosity about the things around them, and as a result, they’ll start to grab things that are out of reach.
Social and emotional development at 9 months begins to become more pronounced, as babies may become more clingy with familiar adults. Babies at this age may also to prefer a favorite toy and become emotionally attached to it.
In terms of communication, babies at this age should understand the word “no" and be able to incorporate consonant sounds into their vowel babbling (“mama," “baba," and “dada," for example). They are able to use fingers to point and copy sounds and gestures of others. Most babies at this age play peek-a-boo and enjoy looking for things that they see you hide.
They should also be able to grasp things between their thumbs and index fingers and move around actively — crawling quickly and pulling themselves into a standing position. At this age, babies should be able to sit without any support, enabling them to play while sitting upright.
Most children at age 1 are socially and emotionally shy and nervous when around strangers. They may cry when mom and dad leave, indicating a little bit of separation anxiety.
Around this stage, they’ll also begin to understand the purposes of things. In other words, they’ll do things like hand you a book if they want to hear a story. When they’re thirsty, they’ll grab a cup; they understand that hair brushes are for brushing hair.
As far as vocal communication goes, they’ll move beyond babbling (and say things like “uh-oh!"); they’ll shake their heads to indicate “no" and wave goodbye. Don’t worry if your child still isn’t able to utter discrete words, however. She may not pick those up for a few more months.
This is a fun age to watch babies play in different ways, too — ways that may seem at odds with one another. They’ll begin to bang and throw things in an almost violent way, but they’ll also begin to learn to follow physical directions (such as, “Pick up the toy you just threw across the room, please.") Encouraging this willingness to pay attention to others is not only useful; it’s also been identified as a behavior that may improve kids’ future academic outcomes.
One-year-olds can get to a sitting position without help and pull themselves up to stand. They can do what’s called “baby cruising," that is, walking around the room by grabbing onto furniture or people to support themselves and stay on their feet.
Key milestones for children at 18 months include playing pretend (which shows some creative thinking) and saying single words, like “book," “toy," and “play." It’s exciting to see the learning process unfold and to observe kids recognizing and pointing out ordinary things, like telephones, spoons, and balls.
A major consideration you’ll have to contend with as a parent is their relentless exploration. Kids can usually walk independently when they’re a year and a half old, and they may even be able to run or to climb stairs on their own. This independence may come along with temper tantrums, which you can try to manage with positive behavior strategies.
Two is a fun age, in part because significant milestones are so easy to see and because kids soak up information so quickly.
Socially, children at this age get excited when playing with their peers and show more and more independence (even though they may also demonstrate defiant behavior).
Their language and communication skills become more developed, too, and they should be able to speak in short, simple sentences. Kids at this age also begin to become more curious about the world they live in, pointing to things in books and saying what they are, repeating words they overhear in conversation, and generally acting like little sponges eager to soak up new words and information. Encourage this sort of behavior! Tell them the names of different objects and animals, and ask them questions about what they see, hear, and experience.
At 2, children begin to sort objects by shape and color, play slightly more complicated make-believe games, build towers out of blocks, and follow two-step directions, such as, “Pick up your toys, and put them in the box." They may show a preference for one hand over the other, and they may also begin to copy lines and shapes with crayons or pencils. Drawing and writing, even if these are just scribbling at first, are additional behaviors you should cultivate as kids enter the emergent writing stage around 3.
By 3, you’ll be able to see abstract social concepts taking shape. Kids this age understand the concept of ownership, claiming different objects as “mine" while saying others are “yours," “his," or “hers." They begin to show concern over a crying friend and may get upset by major changes in routine. This may also be the time when kids begin to separate themselves from their parents a little bit, becoming more comfortable in groups of peers. This time often coincides with kids’ entering preschool.
As far as communication goes, 3-year-olds should begin to understand pronouns, and most will have prepositions down pat. They should also begin to recognize the relationship between singular and plural forms of the same nouns. Learning, thinking, and solving problems are three abilities undergoing rapid refinement, and children’s capacity for abstract thought will begin to bloom. Along with these new abilities, expect some serious games of make-believe involving people, toys, and animals.
Their physical skills will also become more defined. They should now be adept at opening jars, turning doorknobs, riding tricycles, and running with ease.
Socially and emotionally, kids at age 4 are little explorers who enjoy doing new things. They become more and more creative with make-believe play and involve their friends in it. They should also feel confident when introducing themselves by saying their names, ages, genders, and the names of their family members.
Kids at 4 are able to express what they like and what they’re interested in. They can grasp basic rules of grammar and memorize rhymes like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" or “The Wheels on the Bus." At age 4, they understand the idea of counting out loud, recite the names of colors and numbers, and grasp the concepts of “same" and “different." If they have heard a book read more than once, they can tell you what is going to happen next.
They can handle using scissors, playing board or card games, and drawing simple things like stick figures. With ease, they can hop, stand, and catch a bouncing ball most of the time. They can pour, clean up, and be a little helper around the house, contributing to daily chores.
By age 5, most kids have begun to show concern and sympathy for others, particularly their peers. They are more likely to follow rules and will have developed interests in specific activities, such as painting, singing, and dancing. They’ll also show a desire to be liked by friends and to meet new people.
A significant milestone includes being able to speak and to tell simple stories using full sentences. At this age, cognition is becoming more developed; kids can typically count up to 10 or higher (maybe even in more than one language), recite portions of the alphabet, and print letters and numbers. They understand and recognize shapes, colors, and different sizes. They are also more familiar with everyday things and their various purposes, such as how to use money, food, and appliances.
Kids should be able to perform daring acts like somersaults, and they’ll begin to take serious advantage of the playground — hopping, swinging, and climbing on their own.
The CDC considers 6 to be the beginning of “middle childhood," and it brings with it lots of changes.
Having independence from family becomes more important for kids. Big events, like starting school, bring children into regular contact with peers and with the larger world. Friendships, and all the social-emotional learning that happens in the classroom, become more and more important, as does schoolwork — not to mention extracurricular activities like sports and music. Children in this age group might start to think about the future, understand more about their places in the world, and pay more attention to relationships and teamwork.
They’ll continue to get better and better at using full sentences to describe increasingly complex ideas. Likewise, kids at this age will become adept at sharing their thoughts and feelings with you, indicating a real sense of self-awareness.
By this time, children can dress themselves, catch a ball on the fly, and tie their shoes.
As mentioned at the top of the article, these are only generalized guidelines, so please don’t be alarmed if your child is taking longer than may be typical to acquire a given skill or ability. But if you ever have concerns, raise them with your child’s pediatrician. If your child is experiencing developmental delays, early intervention is key.