From the moment your child arrived in your life, you have encountered many milestones that were equally rewarding yet challenging. While sometimes each developmental stage can seem to last forever, the truth is your child is changing and developing at an incredible pace.
From birth to age 3, a child’s brain undergoes the fastest rate of development in the entire human lifespan.1
Your child’s daily experiences help mold their brain, building their cognition, social skills, and ability to handle stress and regulate their emotions. We’re going to cover the five stages of child development, from infancy to school age, along with helpful parenting skills to support your child’s social-emotional growth along the way.
What Are the Stages of Developmental Milestones?
Developmental milestones are behaviors and skills that most children achieve by a certain age. They’re useful for tracking a child’s progress across different domains, including:
But despite the name, developmental milestones aren’t written in stone. They’re guidelines that reflect typical growth for most children. Your child may reach milestones earlier or experience developmental delay depending on their individual differences, experiences, and their environment.
Monitoring your child’s developmental stage doesn’t have to be a daily occurrence to help ensure that they’re growing at a healthy rate. If you notice delays or patterned behavior, don’t panic. Instead, talk to your pediatrician who can provide advice and check for any underlying health or cognitive concerns.
The Five Stages of Child Development
From mirroring back their caregivers’ smiles to walking into their first day of preschool, there’s seemingly no end to the knowledge an individual child can soak up in these formative years. While no child develops the exact same way, there are generally five stages of physical and social-emotional milestones.
#1 Newborn (0 to 3 months)
Your baby’s brain is a long way from fully developed when they’re born, but all the building blocks are in place from the moment they enter the world. Scientists have discovered that infants are born with all the neurons they will ever have, packed into a brain that’s only 25% the size of an adult’s.2
In the first months, the connections between those neurons form astonishingly quickly—more than 1 million new neural pathways per second.3These pathways help with early childhood development in countless ways:4
- Cognitive development – Newborns between 0 and 3 months can recognize your voice, respond to sounds and lights, and track objects with their eyes. They can communicate by crying, babbling, and cooing.
- Motor skills – Your newborn can reflexively grasp your finger, suckle, and turn their head toward a touch. By about 2 months, they can lift their upper body on their arms when lying on their tummy and are beginning to roll and wiggle.
- Social-emotional development – Newborns are already forming deep connections with their caregivers. They respond to eye contact, smiling, and cuddling, and they smile when they’re happy.
#2 Infant (3 months to 1 year)
Infants develop new skills every day. Their sensory functions are almost fully formed, and the language and cognitive parts of their brain are still growing fast.3 They recognize familiar faces, sit up on their own, pick up objects to play with, and make gestures to communicate.
- Cognitive development – Your baby will start to imitate sounds and gestures and recognize more words. Their curiosity and memory are developing quickly. They’re beginning to remember people and understand that objects that are out of sight still exist (object permanence).4
- Motor skills – Starting around 3–4 months, your infant develops enough strength and coordination to roll over, sit up, crawl, and stand with support. They can reach for and grasp objects, bang them together, and transfer them from one hand to the other.
- Social-emotional development – Infants can express a wider range of emotions, from joy and surprise to frustration and fear. They can also respond to other people’s emotions by smiling, laughing, and crying. They may show separation anxiety when they’re away from you or can’t see familiar faces.
#3 Toddler (1 to 3 years)
As they grow up, a young child’s brain is becoming much more complex and efficient. They’re also becoming more assertive and mobile (very mobile), and will start testing limits and expressing feelings.4
- Cognitive development – Between about 12 and 18 months, most toddlers say their first words. By 24 months, they can form simple sentences and learn new words every day. They can name objects, ask questions, and follow simple instructions.
- Motor skills – Toddlers can typically run, walk, climb, jump, pull, and push. Their hand-eye coordination improves, and they’re mastering fine motor skills like stacking blocks, turning pages, and using tools like pencils and crayons.
- Social-emotional development – Toddlers begin to show affection and empathy for others with hugs, kisses, and sharing. They understand the concept of pretend play and love to watch and imitate what you’re doing. You may also see more outbursts of frustration as they try to communicate more complex feelings and needs, or push to do things their own way.
#4 Preschool (3 to 5 years)
As they enter the third year of life, a preschooler’s brain becomes more organized. They are learning new words, understanding more sophisticated concepts, and building their own interests and skills.4
- Cognitive development – Your preschooler is likely to be using sentences to communicate and asking questions about how and why things work. Preschoolers also begin to understand concepts like time, seasons, day and night, numbers, and letters.
- Motor skills – Preschoolers can do more graceful and agile movements, such as skipping, balancing on one foot, and hopping. They can ride a trike and play active games like catch and tag. As for fine motor skills, they can use scissors, draw, color, print letters and numbers, fasten buttons and zippers, and much more.
- Social-emotional development – Preschoolers can begin to understand that other people have different perspectives and feelings. By age 4, they begin to play more independently and entertain themselves. But they’re also beginning to play more cooperatively, using social skills like taking turns, playing fair, and sharing. Engaging in cooperative games for kids will help prepare them for the school year as they encounter new friends and experiences.
#5 School Age (5 years and up)
As the big kid years begin, your child’s brain prunes neural connections to become more efficient and specialized.3 The biggest period of brain growth and development is done—but there’s still a lot to learn.
- Cognitive development – As kindergarten approaches, your child can use language clearly to express new ideas, thoughts, feelings, and opinions. They understand more abstract ideas, and you’ll find yourself having conversations that involve logic, reasoning—and lots of imagination.
- Motor skills – By age 5, a child’s motor skills and coordination are fully formed. They can run, jump, twirl, turn a somersault, and the list goes on. Fine motor skills are fully formed, and learning a musical instrument or making a complex art project is well within reach.5
- Social-emotional development – School-age children have more self-awareness, self-control, and empathy for others. They can take on responsibilities and show initiative when it comes to problem-solving and goals. Friendships start becoming more important and complicated. It’s a good time to teach them how to validate and navigate big feelings like jealousy, frustration, and loneliness.
How Do I Foster My Child’s Growth?
Although much of a child’s brain development happens prior to birth, their brain is shaped by experiences in the early years.3 At every stage, you can nurture your child’s development in many ways:
0 to 3 months
Your newborn’s early development of the brain depends on a safe, calm, and nurturing environment. You can provide that by:6
- Responding to their cues and signals consistently and promptly
- Stimulating their senses by talking, singing, reading, and playing
- Reading social emotional books aloud every day
- Establishing a regular routine for feeding and sleeping
- Providing skin-to-skin time for at least 15 minutes every day7
3 months to 1 year
Infants between 3 months and 1 year need to move, explore the world around them, and interact with people. Every day, try to:8
- Play with a variety of toys and activities that offer different textures, shapes, and things to grasp and move
- Talk to your infant as much as possible using full sentences and new words
- Do tummy time for a few minutes at a time, increasing as their strength and motor control develops
- Limit time in equipment like swings, seats, and bouncers, which can delay muscle and coordination development
1 to 3 years
In toddlerhood, a young child is ready to go, go, go. You can help by:9
- Setting clear and consistent rules and boundaries for both behavior and safety
- Teaching good behavior instead of scolding inappropriate behavior
- Acknowledging your toddler’s feelings and talking about how to name and manage emotions
- Offering choices and opportunities to make decisions and do things on their own
- Engaging in conversations all day long—talk about what they’re doing, how things work, why you do things, and anything else that relates to them and the world around them
3 to 5 years
Now, your child’s motor skills are becoming strongly developed, and they’re ready to dive into creativity and exploration. You can encourage them by:
- Modeling social emotional skills like cooperation, communication, respect, and empathy
- Providing lots of books on a wide variety of topics and reading together every day
- Practicing numbers and letters by counting things around the house, spelling their name, and so on
- Playing with language, rhyming words, singing songs, etc.
- Providing adult-guided play to nurture a growth mindset with our Kinspiration Kits
5 and up
As your child becomes more independent, continue to support them with a safe and supportive home environment that they know they can rely on. At home, try:
- Encouraging autonomy and independence by letting them make choices and solve problems with your guidance and support
- Fostering self-confidence and competence by giving them age-appropriate chores and responsibilities
- Listening empathetically and making space for their emotions and ideas
- Celebrating their achievements and growth by offering specific, sincere praise
Enjoy the Journey With Help From Slumberkins
As a caregiver, you play a crucial role in helping your child grow and learn the emotional, physical, and cognitive skills they can use for the rest of their lives. Yes, early childhood development is a big responsibility. But rest-assured: There are more resources available than ever before to guide you along the way.
Slumberkins can be a part of your journey with our wealth of resources on social and emotional learning for children.
At Slumberkins, our passion is helping you raise your child to be a healthy, loving, and emotionally resilient adult. With our cuddly Kins, books, affirmations, and more, you can show your child that all emotions are welcome in their world.
- Gilmore, John H et al. “Regional gray matter growth, sexual dimorphism, and cerebral asymmetry in the neonatal brain.” The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience vol. 27,6 (2007): 1255-60. doi:10.1523/jneurosci.3339-06.2007
- Nowakowski, Richard S. “Stable neuron numbers from cradle to grave.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 103,33 (2006): 12219-20. doi:10.1073/pnas.0605605103
- "The science of early childhood development." Harvard University Center on the Developing Child. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/inbrief-science-of-ecd/
- "Ages and Stages." American Academy of Pediatrics. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/Pages/default.aspx
- "Movement milestones in preschoolers." American Academy of Pediatrics. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/preschool/Pages/Movement-Milestones-in-Preschoolers.aspx
- "How can parents and caregivers promote early learning?" National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/early-learning/conditioninfo/promote
- Bigelow, Ann et al. "Mother–infant skin-to-skin contact: Short‐ and long-term effects for mothers and their children born full-term." Frontiers in Psychology. Published 2020. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01921/full
- "4 Ways to Encourage Motor Development in Baby's First Year." Nationwide Children’s Hospital. https://www.nationwidechildrens.org/family-resources-education/700childrens/2020/07/4-ways-to-encourage-motor-development-in-babys-first-year
- "The growing child: School-age." Stanford Medicine Children’s Health. https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=the-growing-child-school-age-6-to-12-years-90-P02278
- "Emotional & social development in babies: Birth to 3 months." American Academy of Pediatrics. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/Pages/Emotional-and-Social-Development-Birth-to-3-Months.aspx
- "Parenting tips for the first two years of life." Unicef. https://www.unicef.org/parenting/child-development/baby-tips