2.5 The different stages of development

The first two years

From birth through to the second year of life is the fastest period of a child’s development. During this time, there are a number of major milestones that children pass through as they achieve new skills and competencies. Although it is possible to provide a general guide as to when these milestones are reached, you need to recognise that every child is different, and will not necessarily progress at exactly the same speed. Many factors will influence the child’s development. Children need emotional warmth and stability, freedom from hunger, and a safe and secure environment in which to learn and to be stimulated, with opportunities to explore and discover. If these needs are not met, the child’s development can suffer.

Physical milestones

  • At birth a child cannot engage in purposeful activities.
  • By 3 months, babies can usually raise their head and chest if they are lying on their stomach and they can deliberately open and close their hands.
  • Between 4–7 months, they start to roll over.
  • Between 8–12 months, they start crawling and begin to walk around the 1-year mark.
  • By 2 years old, a child is likely to be able to walk unassisted, run and climb with some assistance. They should also be able to play with objects around them depending on the environment they are in.

Cognitive milestones

  • Babies begin to develop abilities to think and reason during this period.
  • By the age of 2, most children can sort objects by basic shapes and colours if they are encouraged to do so.
  • By the age of 2, they have the ability to begin pretend or imaginative play. They start to understand simple cause-and-effect principles, such as the fact that a stone falls to the ground if you let go of it.
  • They also begin to understand that something still exists even if they can’t see it.

Social milestones

  • When babies are born, they very quickly begin to recognise and respond to their primary caregivers.
  • By 12 months, they can explore objects such as toys (if they have them) with others.
  • Although by the time they are 2 years old, they will play alongside other children, they will not yet engage more directly in social forms of play or interaction.

Emotional milestones 

  • By 12 months, most infants are able to observe and react to other people’s emotions.
  • By the time they are approaching 2 years old, children begin to understand and assert a sense of self. This milestone often results in the toddler’s answer of ‘no’ to a request to do something.
  • If parents encourage them, 2-year-olds can also name basic emotions, such as ‘happy’ and ‘sad’, and point them out when they see them. 

Language milestones

  • From shortly after birth to around one year, a baby will begin to make speech sounds.
  • At around 2 months, the baby will engage in cooing, which mostly consists of vowel sounds.
  • At around 4 months, cooing turns into babbling that consists of repetitive consonant–vowel combinations.
  • It is important to recognise that babies understand more than they are able to say. At around 1 year old, many babies will begin to say simple words, and express wants and needs by pointing to objects.
  • By the age of 2, they will be able to put two to three words into phrases.

2.4 Why understanding stages of child development is important

The pre-school years