Tips to Help Your Child Reach Their Developmental MilestonesLearn how to improve your child's language-communication and social-emotional skills

A group of kids work on a learning activity together with their teacher.

Have you ever worried about your child’s development? If so, you’re not alone. Parents often become alarmed when their child doesn’t learn and grow in the ways they expect. The good news is that you’re in the best position as a parent to help your child reach developmental milestones.

What is a developmental milestone?

Milestones include a behavior, skill or ability that a child develops as they grow and mature. Because every child is unique, these checkpoints are based on a general age range. For example, children usually start eating finger food like Cheerios between seven and ten months of age. This is when they can pick up something and put it in their mouth.

If your child is unable to do this by the time they are 11 or 12 months old, you can teach them how. An excellent way to start is by creating a game where you pick up an item; a bigger one often works best, then the child picks it up. Repeat the process, clapping and giving your child lots of positive feedback when they are able to accomplish this task makes it fun for both of you.

Let’s look at another example. Typically developing children start pointing at about 18 months to show parents what they want or to ask someone to look at the same thing they are seeing. So pointing is an early, basic form of language and communication important for social development.

You can teach this powerful communication technique by holding up two things, one you know they like and one you know they don’t. If your child does not gesture or point to the item they like, gently take your child’s hand and show them how to gestor towards the preferred item. It helps if you hold the item they like closer to them and the one they don’t like a little farther back. Once your child starts gesturing, you can help them turn the gesture into a point by gently molding their hand. You can modify this lesson if your child has a physical disability involving their hands. A whole hand point works if that’s what your child can do. Make sure you give them the liked item when they point to it. Be sure to provide lots of positive feedback as this is the beginning of your child asking for something!

What is the function of a milestone? 

Every milestone has a function. For example, in the case of pointing, the function is communicating what the child wants or what they are trying to bring to your attention like, “Mommy, look at the bird.” Milestones also build on each other. Standing, for example, is readiness for walking and seeing what’s on the coffee table. Below are the four functions of milestones, along with some examples:

  1. Communication – Pointing, looking at people or things, shaking their head “yes” or “no” and their first words
  2. Readiness and practice for physical skills – Pulling up to a stand, throwing things and manipulating toys
  3. Social interaction – Looking at people, copying others and laughing with others
  4. Independence – Eating with a spoon, putting on their clothes and the favorite activity of young children, saying “No!”

Understanding typical developmental milestones and their functions can help accommodate your child’s needs. For instance, if your child has a disability that makes pointing physically difficult, you can teach them to nod or shake their head when you hold up two items. This lets you know which one they want. Or, if making eye contact is challenging for your child, you can help them get your attention by grabbing your hand or tapping you.

Where is your child with developmental milestones?

If you haven’t done so, now is an excellent time to track your child’s development. A quick search will yield several milestone checklists and apps, but one of the most commonly used resources is the CDC’s Developmental Milestones.

Start by looking at the milestones in your child’s age range. If your child isn’t in their age range, move to the lower age until you find where your child is functioning. It’s not uncommon for a child to have milestones spanning a couple of different age ranges. Few children develop in a straight line. Keep in mind that milestones may need to be adjusted. For example, if your child was born two months premature, they are likely two or three months behind. Becoming familiar with the ranges on either side of your child’s age will give you a good picture of their progress.

Your child’s doctor is another good source of information. You may be asked to complete a development questionnaire when you take your child in for a checkup. Make sure to fill out the form in its entirety so the doctor can get a good idea of how your child is progressing in different areas.

The importance of language-communication and social-emotional milestones

Language-communication and social-emotional milestones essential for brain development are much harder to develop as we age. In fact, the sensitive period for learning a language ends at about age 5 or 6. Meaning that before age 6 the brain is most ready to learn a language. This is why people who speak two languages when they are young often become fully bilingual.

If your child is behind in reaching their milestones, it’s a good idea to teach language-communication skills first. This helps your child learn how to express their wants and needs.

When we talk about language, we don’t mean using the correct grammar or accurately pronouncing everything. Instead, we are describing a person’s ability to communicate in a complex way. This includes talking, using sign language and even pointing to a picture. Here are some other examples of language development in young children:

  1. An 18-month-old points at an object and says, “Da da da.”
  2. When a mom starts to brush her three-year-old’s teeth, the child says, “No, mama, no. I don’t like that.”
  3. A four-year-old tells her sister a story that has many details.

Social-emotional milestones are also critical and related to language. They are about relating to others, seeking out other people’s company and having some control over our emotions.

One of the first social things a young child learns is who is part of their family and who is not. You can see this milestone in a 12-month-old child who cries when a parent leaves the room or when they are dropped off at daycare for the first few times. This can be very stressful for a parent, but the child’s cries are a crucial milestone. The toddler knows who their parents are and is bonded to them. As the child gets to know the childcare staff, these people become part of the child’s social group, and the child may no longer cry when they are dropped off at daycare or only cry for a moment or two.

Another milestone of social development is when a three-year-old copies a friend or sibling. For humans, imitating each other is a social activity. While it can get us into trouble, it is also a way to learn. For example, when a young child copies their older sibling by trying to write a letter or number, the young child is both learning and showing the sibling, “I want to be like you.” One of the ways you can encourage imitation is by imitating your child. Make it into a game and imitate what your child is doing. This can be lots of fun, and it gives your child the role of the leader.

Part of the social-emotional milestones includes learning how to regulate emotionally. Temper tantrums are very common in young children. It’s a way for them to communicate. Over time, temper tantrums naturally decrease as the child gains more language and learns how to cope with their feelings. You can help your child understand their emotions by naming them.

For example, if your child is upset about not being allowed to continue playing with a friend, you can reflect on your child’s feelings by saying, “It’s sad when you have to stop playing.” During transitions like these, it’s common for young children to experience distress that leads to emotional outbursts. You can help them by giving a transition warning. This can be as simple as telling your child, “When the alarm on my phone goes off, it will be time to pick up the toys.” Another tip is to count down by saying, “Two more minutes, and it’s time to clean up.” Then say, “One more minute until clean-up time.”

What if my child is delayed in their milestones?

If you are concerned about your child reaching their milestones, it’s a good idea to talk to their pediatrician. Children who are behind may simply require some extra support and time from you. And if your child is significantly behind, the doctor might suggest an assessment to find out why. Then, based on the results, speech and language therapy or a behavioral health treatment like Chat may be recommended.

Developed by the Catalight Research Institute, Chat is a fun naturalistic development and language-based program for children under the age of six. As part of the program, Chat clinicians can teach you about milestones so you can best support your child’s development of language, social skills and play.

Summary

While children often develop on their own timelines, it’s essential to continue to monitor and track your child’s milestones carefully. Then, if they are experiencing any delays, even mild ones, you can act early. Intervention programs can help your child make meaningful progress and give you the necessary tools and support.

Language-communication and social-emotional milestone examples

12-month-old

  • Language-communication milestones:
  • Responds to simple spoken requests
  • Uses simple gestures like shaking head “no” or waving “bye-bye”
  • Makes sounds with changes in tone
  • Says “mama” and “dada”
  • Tries to say words you say
  • Social-emotional milestones:
  • Is shy or nervous with strangers
  • Cries when caregivers leave
  • Has favorite things and people
  • Shows fear in some situations
  • Hands you a book when he wants to hear a story
  • Repeats sounds or actions to get attention
  • Puts out arm or leg to help with dressing
  • Plays games such as “peek-a-boo”

18-month-old

  • Language-communication milestones:
  • Says single words or word approximations (imitation)
  • Says and shakes their head “no”
  • Points to show someone what they want
  • Copies sounds and words
  • Understands common phrases used in routine situations
  • Shows joint attention (attending to something that someone else is paying attention to)
  • Social-emotional milestones:
  • Likes to hand things to others as play
  • Temper tantrums
  • Afraid of strangers
  • Shows affection to familiar people
  • Pretend plays, such as feeding a doll
  • Points to show others when something is interesting
  • Explores alone, but with a parent close by

Age 2

  • Language-communication milestones:
  • Points to things or pictures when they are named
  • Knows names of familiar people and body parts
  • Says phrases/sentences with two to four words
  • Follows simple instructions
  • Repeats words overheard in conversation
  • Social-emotional milestones:
  • Copies others, especially adults and older children
  • Gets excited when with other children
  • Shows more independence
  • Plays primarily beside (parallel to) other children, but is beginning to include other children

Age 3

  • Language-communication milestones:
  • Follows instructions with two or three steps
  • Can name most familiar things
  • Understands words like “in,” “on” and “under”
  • Says first name, age and gender
  • Names friends
  • Says words like “I,” “me,” “we” and “you,” and some plurals (cars, dogs and cats)
  • Carries on a conversation using two to three sentences
  • Social-emotional milestones:
  • Copies adults and friends
  • Shows affection for friends without prompting
  • Takes turns in games
  • Shows concern for a crying friend
  • Understands the idea of “mine,” “his” or “hers”
  • Shows a wide range of emotions
  • Separates more easily from parents

Age 4

  • Language-communication milestones:
  • Knows some basic rules of grammar like correctly using “he” and “she”
  • Sings a song or says a poem from memory such as the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” or the “Wheels on the Bus”
  • Tells stories
  • Can say first and last name
  • Social-emotional milestones:
  • Pretends to play as caregivers
  • Is more and more creative with make-believe play
  • Would rather play with other children than by themselves
  • Can identify what is real and what is make-believe

Age 5

  • Language-communication milestones:
  • Speaks very clearly
  • Tells a simple story using full sentences
  • Uses future tense like “Grandma will be here”
  • Says all speech sounds in words
  • Talks in different ways, depending on the listener and place
  • Social-emotional milestones:
  • Wants to please friends
  • Wants to be liked by friends
  • More likely to agree with and enforce rules
  • Likes to sing, dance and act
  • Is aware of gender (respect gender being on a spectrum – consider cultural issues)
  • Shows more independence
  • Is sometimes demanding and sometimes very cooperative

Age 6

  • Language-communication milestones:
  • Has a receptive vocabulary of approximately 20,000 words
  • Sequences numbers
  • Understands the meaning of most sentences
  • Should be sounding out simple words like “hang,” “neat,” “jump,” and “sank”
  • Social-emotional milestones:
  • Has the ability to resolve conflict in socially acceptable ways
  • Is aware that other people have different perspectives, thoughts and feelings about ideas and circumstances
  • Communicates needs and emotions to others under supportive and fairly positive situations
  • Describes self-based on external characteristics, such as physical attributes, name, possessions and age

References:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Developmental Milestones

Hess, C. R., Teti, D. M., & Hussey-Gardner, B. (2004). Self-Efficacy and Parenting of High-Risk Infants: The Moderating Role of Parent Knowledge of Infant Development. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology25(4), 423–437. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2004.06.002

Rosanbalm, K. and Murray, D.W. (2017). Self-Regulation Snap Shot #1: A Focus on Infants and Toddlers. OPRE Report #2018-10, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Rosanbalm, K. and Murray, D.W. (2017). Self-Regulation Snap Shot #2: A Focus on Preschool-Aged Children. OPRE Report #2018-11, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

About the author:

Dr. Doreen Samelson is the Chief Clinical Officer at Catalight, a licensed clinical psychologist and an author with 30 years of experience in healthcare as a practicing clinician, administrator and thought leader.