Developmental Facts and Phases

Researching ‘normative’, or normal, stages of child development can be a daunting and overwhelming task for even the most seasoned child care veteran or parent. It is not uncommon to find Child Development literature infused with phrases, like “normal behavior”, “delayed functioning”, “critical periods” and “patterns of attachment”, that leave some parents/guardians and caregivers confused and concerned about their child’s developmental progression.

Although these terms can be useful indicators of whether or not a child is developing to his or her full potential, it is all too easy to get caught up in precise time-lines. As a result, we forget that these terms and ‘stages’ are, in truth, designed as guidelines. As such, they have a certain degree of flexibility, and should not be used to rigidly establish whether or not children measure up to their peers.

Instead, when all things are considered, a child’s development is based, not only on academically approved criteria, but also on the child’s environment. This includes family structure, as well as cultural and social norms and values. By combining these two criteria a more accurate developmental estimation can be made.

With this in mind, has compiled a list of general developmental facts and phases that focus on the first five years of a child’s life. If you have concerns about your child’s development speak with your doctor, there are things that you can do in the early years of your child’s life to promote healthy development.

Birth to Three Months

In the first three months of your baby’s life a number of fascinating developmental characteristics emerge. Here are just a few:

  • Did you know that within a few days after birth babies can distinguish their mother’s face from other faces?
  • Newborn babies have the ability to distinguish the smell of their mother’s milk from that of other women.
  • It is believed that, in this early period of development, babies are able to distinguish the sounds of language from non-language sounds.
  • Has the joy of interacting with your smiling 2 month old ever been shattered by someone whispering in you ear “its just gas”? Well, this may not necessarily be true. We know that as a baby’s visual system matures a new level of sight and a new ability to analyze his surroundings emerges. In response to this a baby will smile when he sees you smile. However, even parents with babies that are blind report smiling at this young age; studies (Fraiberg, 1974) show that these parents tend to bounce, tickle, nudge, and use other forms of interactive play with their babies more often than parents with sighted children. It is therefore not only the onset of sight that promotes smiling but other sensory interactions as well.
  • As babies begin to respond to touch and sight, parents, especially dads, begin to grow more attached and experience that sense of connectedness to their child that may have previously been absent.
  • Within a few months after birth some of the reflexes children are born with fade away, never to return. So, if you want to familiarize yourself with some of them while you can- try this:
    • Stroke the bottom of your baby’s foot, her toes will fan out then curl. This reflex is called Babinski and generally disappears in 8-12 months.
    • Press your finger against your baby’s palm, his fingers will close around it. This reflex is called grasping and in replaced by voluntary grasping at around 3-4 months.
    • Try touching your baby on the cheek. Her rooting reflex will kick in as she turns her head and opens her mouth. This response disappears by about 3-6 months.

Three to Six Months

As your baby enters the next few months of life, amazing things continue to happen. During this time your will baby will begin to:

  • Express his emotional state by not only crying and smiling, but cooing too.
  • Hold his head up with more control.
  • Respond to his name.
  • Lift his head and chest with straight arms while he plays on his tummy. This generally gives way to the more exciting ability of rolling over.
  • Become aware of new sounds and look around for their source.

Six to Nine Months

In months six to nine new physical, emotional, intellectual and social features continue to surface. You will notice your baby start to:

  • Sit without support.
  • Crawl
  • Play games like “peek-a-boo”.
  • Say things like “babababa”, or “dada”. This is called babbling. Try not to confuse this with a child’s first word; babies don’t connect these words with their actual meanings quite yet.
  • Express a fear of heights.
  • Become coordinated when reaching and grasping.
  • Show wariness in response to novelty, including new people. Did you know that babies will look at their primary caregiver for some indication of how they should feel and act when they encounter something unfamiliar? This is called social referencing.
  • Develop an attachment to his caregiver. This is a completely healthy and important stage of development even though some of the following indications of a secure attachment may not look very appealing to some. You will know if a secure attachment has been achieved if a baby:
    • Becomes distressed when separated from her caregiver.
    • Seeks to be near caregiver.
    • Shows happiness when reunited with caregiver.
    • Keeps an eye on the caregiver while he plays.
    • Listens for caregiver’s voice if caregiver is absent.

Nine to Twelve Months

In the last few months of your child’s first year things get even more exciting for parents and caregivers as babies begin to:

  • Speak their first word.
  • Learn that the sounds they make can recruit an adult’s help and attention.
  • Pull themselves to standing position.
  • Walk while holding onto furniture.
  • Use single-word sentences called holophrases, these include words like “up” or “bottle”.
  • Understand about a dozen common phrases such as “give me a hug”, “let’s go bye-bye” and “stop it”.
  • Crawl and explore their environment freely.

Twelve to Twenty-Four Months

Keep that camera rolling! The next year of your child’s life is exciting and his accomplishments seem endless. At this stage in development your child will:

  • Walk well.
  • Kick a ball.
  • Use approximately 10 words at the beginning of his second year, but actually understands up to 100 words.
  • Use up to 50 words by 18 months. While your child’s total vocabulary (words used and understood) may be as large as 300 words by her second birthday.
  • Say his first two-word sentence.
  • Begin to feed herself, nevertheless, don’t expect perfection.
  • Use correct responses to indirect requests like “is the door shut?”
  • Experience a decline in distress when separated from his primary caregiver (usually around 18-30 months).

Age Two to Three

As your child’s third year rolls ahead his development is marked by new and distinctive qualities. At this point children may begin to:

  • Exercise their will- which has the tendency to drive some parents crazy.
  • Gain control over their bladder and bowels.
  • Develop increased motor skills including climbing, running, and getting dressed.
  • Use indirect statements like “you’re standing on my blocks”.
  • Modify speech to take the listener into account- watch to see how a 2½ year old talks to a baby or how a 3½ year old describes a toy to a person with and without a blindfold.
  • Use pretend play to express thoughts and feelings.

Age Three to Five

Age 3-5 marks what some parents and caregivers refer to as the preschool years. Fortunately, development does not stop here. Many more fascinating changes continue to occur. Here are just a few:

  • You may notice that interactions between preschoolers are often focused on what they are doing by themselves with no real regard for their companion and no real intent to communicate. This is because thought and conversation at this stage are self-centered.
  • You will most likely notice a rapid increase in phrase and sentence use and often over-generalize language rules. For example- “we going to airport!” or “what are theys doing”.
  • Sex roles begin to emerge. This happens as children identify with, and model the behavior of the same-sex parent.
  • Behavior becomes purposeful.
  • Children initiate their own activities.
  • Children enjoy their accomplishments.
  • A sense of ownership increases- For example, children may become distraught if a toy is given or thrown away.
  • You may begin to notice that your child is finally learning to think through actions. However, do not misinterpret this for engaging in cause and effect reasoning. A child’s reasoning may instead look something like this: “I haven’t had a nap yet so it must not be snack time” or “there are no graveyards in Vancouver, so that means nobody dies here”.
  • Children at this age have a tendency to confuse appearance with reality- For example, just because daddy is wearing a scary mask, does not mean he has changed into a scary person.
  • Children have difficulty imaging what something looks like from another person’s perspective. This however does not last much longer; as a child approaches 4 and 5, their ability to understand another’s perspective develops.


Cole, M., & Cole, S. (2001). The development of children (4th ed). New York: Worth Publishers.

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