Important Child Development Stages - First 5 Years | Children's Bureau (2023)


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As parents, we make it our goal to do whatever we can to improve the lives of our children. We read baby and toddler parenting books, research various topics, provide social interaction, and ask lots of questions because we know early child development within the first five years of life are critical. One of the topics that become so important in parenting is our child’s physical and cognitive development. While no two children develop on the exact same timeline, there are sensitive time periods in which major developmental milestones are reached. One of the most critical stages of development and learning is from birth to five years old. The first five years of child development are crucial to their health, wellbeing, and the overall trajectory of their lives in a variety of ways. Fortunately, there are many things that parents can do to help in their child’s growth and development.

Important Child Development Stages - First 5 Years | Children's Bureau (3)

Child’s Physical Growth and Development in the First Year

A key measure that is often used in regards to physical development is “milestones.” Developmental milestones are defined as the abilities that most children are able to perform by a certain age. During the first year of a baby’s life, physical milestones are centered on the infant learning how to master self-movement, hold objects, and develop hand-to-mouth coordination. Because rapid growth takes place before the age of one, milestones are characterized by months.

Birth to 3 Months

During this time frame, newborns begin to build upon their rooting, sucking, and grasping reflexes. Infants begin to tug and pull on their own hands, clench them into fists, and bring them to their mouth, all while learning to repeat their own body movements. One of the most significant physical milestones that are reached during this time frame is head control. A baby will begin to hold their head up for a few seconds with support, and also learn how to slightly raise their head when lying on their stomach.

Parents can encourage their child’s physical development during this time frame by providing what is commonly known as “tummy time.” Tummy Time is supervised, playtime that babies spend on their stomachs while awake. Tummy time strengthens your baby’s neck, back, and arms. It also lays the foundation for the later development of higher-level motor skills, hand skills, visual skills, and even speech and feeding skills.

3 to 6 Months

At this age, babies begin to develop greater dexterity and strength. Most infants will begin to roll over, sit up with support, pull their bodies forward, pull themselves up by grasping the edge of the crib or another solid object, bring objects to their mouths, reach for objects, and play with toys. Caregivers can help little ones develop during this stage by providing a variety of different toys and sensory-stimulating objects.

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6 to 9 Months

During this time, children become increasingly mobile. They usually begin to grasp and pull objects toward their body, sit without support, transfer items from one hand to the other, and many even begin to crawl!

9 to 12 Months

In this window of development, most babies are able to pull themselves to a seated position, stand without assistance, take their first steps, pick up and throw objects, roll a ball, and grasp objects between their thumb and one finger. In addition to the major milestones such as standing up and walking, this is a significant developmental period of a child’s ability to begin to develop more advanced fine motor skills.

Child’s Physical Growth and Development from 1 to 5 Years Old

After the 1-year-old milestone, physical growth still happens tremendously, but the developmental windows are much wider. Here are a few of the typical, developmental milestones that are reached between ages 1 and 5.

1 to 2 Years

  • Picking things up while standing up
  • Walking backwards
  • Coloring or painting by moving their entire arm
  • Scribbling with markers or crayons
  • Turning knobs and handles
  • Walking up and down stairs without assistance
  • Moving and swaying to music

2 to 3 Years

  • Running in a forward direction
  • Jumping in one place
  • Kicking a ball
  • Standing on one foot
  • Turning pages of a book
  • Drawing a circle
  • Holding a crayon or marker between the thumb and fingers

3 to 4 Years

  • Riding a tricycle or scooter
  • Going down a slide without help
  • Throwing and catch a ball
  • Pulling and steering toys
  • Walking in a straight line
  • Building tall towers with toy blocks
  • Manipulating clay into shapes

4 to 5 Years

  • Jumping on one foot
  • Walking backwards
  • Doing somersaults
  • Cutting paper with safety scissors
  • Printing letters
  • Copying shapes (such as squares and crosses)

Helping Children Reach Their Physical Milestones

Overall, the progression of physical development during early childhood is an amazing thing to observe – and parents have a front-row seat! One of the very best ways that family can help promote child development is to simply create a supportive and encouraging environment. For babies, this means giving little ones plenty of room to roll, crawl, and play, as well as plenty of safe objects nearby to practice grasping, grabbing, shaking, and placing in their mouth.

In toddlerhood, large motor skills can be developed when parents provide plenty of opportunities for young kids to practice their newly emerging abilities through physical activity. Giving them the space, time, and resources they need to kick, climb, run, jump, and balance is especially important in fostering a child’s growth and promoting healthy development. Parents can help their kids develop their fine motor skills in much the same way. Providing them with play experiences that involve putting together puzzles, drawing, cutting with safety scissors, or stringing beads will help young children build better fine motor movements and improve their hand-eye coordination. Remember, all kids truly need in the early years of their development is a safe space to explore the world around them, and a caring adult to help them along the way!

Cognitive Development and Learning in a Child’s First Five Years

Data compiled by the Rauch Foundation found that 85 percent of a person’s brain is developed by the time they are five years old! As a result, these first years of life are critical to healthy early childhood development. As with physical development, cognitive, social, and emotional milestones represent important steps forward in a child’s development. Here are some common, cognitive milestones that are reached between ages zero to five:

Birth to 3 Months

During this period, most infants start to see objects more clearly, focus on moving objects and faces, differentiate between different tastes, detect differences in pitch and volume, begin to see colors, demonstrate facial expressions and anticipatory behaviors, such as like rooting and sucking at the site of a nipple or bottle.

3 to 6 Months

Babies will start to develop a stronger sense of perception, and begin to recognize familiar faces, respond to the facial expressions of other people, recognize and react to familiar sounds, and begin to imitate the facial expressions and sounds of others.

6 to 9 Months

Between six and nine months of age, older babies begin to understand the differences between animate and inanimate objects and recognize differences between pictures depicting different numbers of objects. They are also able to utilize the relative size of an object to determine how far away it is, as well as gaze longer at objects suspended in midair (such as a balloon or an airplane).

9 to 12 Months

Before one year of age, most infants start to understand the concept of object permanence, or the idea that an object continues to exist even though it cannot be seen at the moment. This developmental milestone is also when separation anxiety may begin when a caregiver leaves the room. Additionally, during this time frame, babies will begin to imitate gestures and some basic actions, respond with gestures and sounds, enjoy looking at picture books and manipulate objects.

1 to 2 Years

During this developmental stage, most one-year-olds can:

  • Understand and respond to words
  • Identify objects that are similar and different
  • Explain the difference between “Me” and “You”
  • Imitate both the actions and language of adults
  • Can point out familiar objects and people in a picture book.

Overall, young toddlers are constantly learning through imitation and exploration!

2 to 3 Years

As 2-year-olds, toddlers are becoming very independent! Because they are now able to better explore the world, most of the learning during this toddler development stage is the result of their own experiences. While developmental milestones may vary during this time, some may include:

  • Sorting objects by category (i.e., animals, shapes, numbers, flowers, trees, etc.)
  • Stacking toys from largest to smallest
  • Responding to simple directions from parents and caregivers
  • Naming familiar objects in a picture book
  • Matching objects
  • Imitating more complex adult actions
  • Engaging in fantasy play (such as playing house, talking on the phone, pretending to cook food or do laundry, etc.)
  • Identifying their own reflection in the mirror
  • Saying their own name

3 to 4 Years

After this milestone for 3-year-olds, young children become capable of understanding more complex ideas. As they observe the world around them, kids start to analyze and sort the things they see. This type of categorization is usually referred to as the development of cognitive schemas. Children also begin to wonder how things work, and why. Their cognitive skills allow most of them to demonstrate understanding in regards to past and future events, as well as actively seek answers to their questions.

4 to 5 Years

Children passing their 4-year-old milestones are progressively learning more every day—they become better at using words, imitating adult actions, counting objects, and other basic activities that are important for further language development and school preparedness. Around this age, most children are able to rhyme words, identify many colors, draw pictures of people, and explain where they live.

How Negative Formative Years Can Impact A Child’s Development

Children need to be nurtured, talked to, and supported by their parents, especially during their first five years of life. But what if this doesn’t happen? What if a child’s caregiver is negligent of their parental duties? When parents fail to meet the emotional, physical, and mental needs of their child during these growth stages, that’s when future mental problems begin to develop. Studies show when a child experiences neglect at a young age, it often manifests into deep-rooted issues that stay with them throughout the child’s life, especially making an impact on the child’s emotional intelligence, emotional development, and social skills and ability to play with other children.

Children who do not receive proper treatment from their parents during these child development stages are prone to:

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  • Behavioral issues
  • Low self-esteem,
  • Lacking a sense of belonging
  • Developing depression
  • Mental health issues
  • Addictions

Even if parents are not physically abusing their children, a child can still develop negative feelings and insecurities that affect them well into their lifetime. If the caregiver continues to neglect the child during their teenage years, the older child will feel like they don’t have a reliable support system at home and may try to find unsafe alternatives to cope with their insecurities.

To learn more about adverse childhood experiences, check out this article.

Resources to Help Your Child’s Development

While brain development during the first five years is so important, most children are already eager to learn! While formal education will begin soon enough, the primary way that babies, toddlers, and young children learn is through play. At home, caregivers can encourage this by helping their children make sense of the world around them. First 5 California, an organization who has a mission to promote, support, and optimize early childhood development, has partnered with Vroom to provide parents with over 1,000 fun and free tips and activities to help add learning to mealtime, bathtime, bedtime, or playtime!

One of the primary things that First 5 emphasizes for these child development stages is that “Brains are built over time, but the primary foundations are constructed very early in life. While many factors influence brain development, [a parent’s] early intervention and interactions have the most impact – and they include talking, reading, and singing.” Overall, it is the simple, everyday moments that will help your children develop cognitively.

Talking with your child, reading to your toddler, and singing to your newborn baby will help to build their brain in tremendous ways, and reap lifelong benefits.

Here, at Children’s Bureau, we cannot emphasize enough how grateful we are for parents and other caregivers, who selflessly and intentionally spend the time to ensure that their children grow up to be safe, healthy, and nurtured. Children truly are the future of our world, and healthy childhood development within the first five years is crucial.

Reviewed by Jose A. Ramos Jr., Director of Prevention

Jose A. Ramos Jr., MSW, is the Senior Program Director at Children’s Bureau and is on the Board of Directors. He has worked with Children’s Bureau since 1994 and has over 30-years of experience working in the Child Welfare field. He has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Long Beach and is earning his MBA. Jose is also Secretary of the National Association of Social Workers

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