Healthy living

Child development 1–2 years

The time between 1 and 2 is one of rapid change.

Your baby is on the move and discovering the world. Parenting becomes demanding in a different way because you have to think about safety and setting limits as well as caring for your baby. Some parents miss their tiny baby and others are pleased that their baby has a little more independence.

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn – please change to suit your child's sex.

Social and emotional development

It is in the course of this year that your toddler understands that he is a completely separate person from you. This not only causes him to worry about the possibility of you leaving him but also causes the much repeated words ‘me’ and ‘mine’. The whole notion of owning something needs first to have a self to own it.

Having his ‘own’ way or declaring an object ‘mine’ is a way of coming to grips with this exciting and rather frightening new idea. It is hard to understand what something is unless you also know what it is not, so your toddler may also be into opposites – probably mostly the opposite of whatever you are suggesting at the time!

Although they can often understand many words, children in their second year cannot grasp abstract concepts – they are strictly concrete thinkers. Your child often does not respond to spoken commands and needs to be distracted, moved away or picked up very often – even though he seems to understand ‘no’ he is unable yet to control his impulses enough to obey. Parenting an 18-month-old is physically very demanding.

  • Your child will be curious and energetic but he depends on an adult’s presence for reassurance and needs a lot of adult attention.
  • Your child is very attached to and dependent on parents and likely to be afraid of separation because he does not yet fully understand that you will come back.
  • He enjoys playing with an adult and likes repetitive games.
  • He shows interest in other children but usually plays alone. He has no idea of sharing at this age and should not be expected to share.
  • He will imitate actions and games of others, such as talking on a toy telephone.
  • He may be more cooperative in dressing because of a desire to imitate adults and ‘do it myself’.
  • He may want to ‘get it right’ and experience unbearable frustration if he can’t achieve mastery over a task.
  • His ability to feed himself is slowly improving and he is likely to be choosy about what he eats.

Developing understanding

In the second year children still have no ability to see the world in perspective. Your child is learning about individual objects from ground level. Concepts of time and distance – ‘too fast, too slow, too far’ – are all beyond her grasp, often to the frustration of her parents for whom these concepts are real.

She is, however, working hard on sorting the objects she sees into understandable groups. At first these groups may be quite loose. For example, having seen and remembered a duck, she is likely to say ‘duck’ when she first sees a chicken because they both have feathers and wings. It’s interesting to watch the powers of observation she brings to this task of organising the objects, characters and animals they come across in their world.

  • Her ability to remember is improving and may show at times in her being able to think before she acts, such as remembering something is hot.
  • Between 18 months and 2 her ability to recognise similarities and differences in things increases and she will be interested in sorting things into groups, such as cars, blocks, animals.
  • Your child also begins to work out what things belong together, such as picking out daddy’s shoes, putting the crayons with the paper.
  • Your child will begin to try matching and fitting and will be able to complete some simple puzzles, such as shapes or familiar animals.
  • She will remember and copy past events.
  • She will enjoy simple make-believe play, such as talking on the telephone.
  • Your child has very little understanding of time and can’t understand what tomorrow means. She doesn’t grasp abstract words such as pretty, empty, heavy and she cannot talk about things that she cannot see, pick up or touch.
  • She has no real understanding of size and space and may be frightened of falling down a plughole in the bath or toilet.

Physical skills

Your child’s rapidly increasing movement in this year can mean a major reorganisation of the house. He goes from crawling or teetering within a limited space to walking confidently and exploring widely, pulling open every handle and twiddling every knob he can see.

For safety reasons, it may be helpful to secure or remove heavy or breakable items, leaving interesting unbreakables in accessible places.

Try to watch your use of language, particularly the use of negative words like ‘no’ and ‘don't’, as it will have a powerful effect on your toddler's view of himself and the world.

You don't want to paint a picture of a world where nothing is allowed but rather a positive picture where many things are possible. So, in guiding behaviour, try to suggest alternatives and explain dangers as simply as you can. It is not good for you or your toddler if you are having to say ‘no’ or ‘don't touch’ every 2 minutes.

  • Your 1-year-old can push himself along – ‘scooting along’ – on a 4-wheeled riding toy.
  • By 15 months he is able to walk alone with feet wide apart and arms held high to maintain balance.
  • At 15 months he gets to his feet using his hands to push up with and by 2 can get up without using his hands.
  • By 2 he will probably be able to run, without bumping into things and stop when necessary.
  • By 2 most children can go down stairs while holding on but will put 2 feet on each step before moving to the next one.
  • By 2 your child will be interested in and capable of turning knobs and pushing buttons.

Testing ‘how far they can go’ is a feature of your toddler’s physical life as well as his social life. Try to let him explore freely and safely but don’t let him run too far.

Language development

Language in the second year is a mirror of children’s development in other ways. Your child will quickly start to name more of the objects and their uses that she sees in the world, although she will often want you to express what is in her head and too hard for her to say, like ‘I want the green cup for my water’.

While the number of words she knows increases hugely in the course of the year, she often gets very frustrated because she can’t say as much as she wants to – or because you don’t understand what she is saying. Talk to her a lot and repeat what she has said in your replies to them, describing things you see together in simple terms, such as ‘Yes, look at the big bus!’

  • Your child's speech increases from an average of 5 to 20 words at 18 months to as many as 150 to 300 words by 2. Her understanding of words is even greater.
  • By 2 your child can tell you most of what she wants with words, such as ‘outside’, ‘milk’, ‘biscuit’, even though many words will not always be pronounced correctly.
  • By 2 her sentences become longer and more accurate, for example from 'more' to 'want more' and then 'I want more'.
  • Your child’s language understanding is also improving so she can remember 2 things at a time, for example ‘Get the ball and bring it to daddy’.
  • Besides words to say what they want, children at this age have begun to learn some words to say how they feel, such as feelings of happiness 'goo' or hurting themselves ‘ow’, ‘sore’ or a word for wanting a band-aid.
  • By 2 your child will have enough language skills to be able to tell people what she wants them to do, such as ‘no’ or ‘go away’.
  • She may stammer or hesitate over particular words or when excited.

What you can do

  • He will love to turn knobs and push buttons as this helps him to learn to use his muscles and also to feel that he can manage new things. Protect the TV and other appliances and give him his own toys with knobs and buttons to press.
  • Your child will be interested in playing with simple puzzles. (You may choose to borrow some from a toy library rather than buy them because children often lose interest once they can do the puzzle.)
  • Your child will enjoy toys that link together, such as trains with carriages and stacking toys, hammer and peg sets, and filling and emptying containers.
  • He will love to look at pictures, particularly if you name familiar objects and animals and allow him to turn the pages sometimes.
  • Favourite conversations involve talking about what he is looking at, doing or feeling. Your child learns more words when you chat this way, rather than when you ask questions. Try to avoid questions that you already know the answer to. Instead of asking 'what’s that?' you might say 'oh, it’s a yummy apple'.
  • Play games where he has lots of opportunities to say ‘no’, such as ‘Is daddy under the bed?’
  • Provide toys, such as plastic fruit, animals and cars, so he can learn about difference and sameness.
  • Young children love to copy others and to dress up, and play with toys that allow them to copy household activity, for example telephone, dolls and washing up.
  • Allow your child to play by himself at times without interference so that he learns to entertain himself. He will ask for help if he wants it.

What to watch out for

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your child:

  • is tripping over her feet a lot and this is not improving
  • cannot walk
  • cannot hold a spoon and get most of the food to her mouth
  • cannot pick up small objects
  • cannot build a tower of 3 to 4 bricks
  • is only using up to 20 single words consistently
  • does not understand simple directions (this does not mean she will always do as you tell her)
  • often runs very far away (out of sight) or climbs extremely high without hesitation.

Toileting

Many parents will want to start ‘toilet training’ their child towards the end of the second year as their child will usually be showing awareness of their bowel movements. Most children will ‘train’ themselves when they are ready, with some simple encouragement from their parents. This can happen any time between about 2 and 3½, but it usually does not happen before children are 2.

As 2-year-olds are keen to be able to boss themselves and ‘get it right’ they can get very worried and frightened about not managing their own toileting properly. If you find tensions arising around toileting issues seek further support from a health professional.

Summary

Social and emotional development

By 18 months children are usually:

  • exploring the environment around them, touching, pulling whatever they can see and reach (make sure that toddlers are safe)
  • enjoying physical contact (cuddles, tickles)
  • emotionally changeable, quick mood changes from happy to sad to angry
  • likely to be afraid of strangers
  • showing a strong attachment to parents
  • showing distress when left by a parent and often clingy when the parent returns.

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your child:

  • does not show a preference for familiar people
  • does not show separation anxiety.

By 2 children are usually:

  • starting to explore more widely, opening doors and drawers
  • playing near other children, but not yet with other children (unless the other child is older and able to adapt her play to fit the 2 year old)
  • unable to share
  • very fearful of separation
  • dependent on a comforter, such as a dummy.

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your child:

  • does not show awareness of different people.

Motor skills

By 18 months children are usually:

  • walking skilfully, but also often falling if they try to run fast
  • climbing onto low furniture
  • able to push a toy, such as a trolley
  • able to put one object, such as a block, deliberately onto another
  • starting to scribble with a pencil
  • able to pick up small objects.

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your child:

  • is not yet walking.

By 2 children are usually:

  • able to run fast without falling over when turning corners or stopping
  • squatting steadily to pick up objects from the floor
  • able to bring a small chair to sit at a table
  • able to walk backwards pulling a toy or trolley.

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your child:

  • is not walking steadily, especially if the child has a limp.

Speech and language

By 18 months children are usually:

  • babbling loudly and often to themselves and to others, as though having a conversation
  • listening to things said to them, and understanding some things, such as ‘no’
  • able to understand and follow a few simple words and sentences such as 'sit on the chair'
  • able to identify a few familiar objects when they are named (such as ‘show me the ball’ or ‘where is the spoon?’)
  • using no less than 7 and up to 20 recognisable words (the words may be quite unclear, but the primary caregiver is able to tell what is meant by the sound).

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your child:

  • is not babbling often
  • is not starting to use some meaningful words
  • does not listen when others are talking to him.

By 2 children are usually:

  • able to use over 50 recognisable words consistently
  • listening to things that are said to them
  • starting to put two words together, such as ‘daddy’s car’
  • joining in with familiar songs
  • babbling while playing, with a few recognisable words in the babble.

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your child:

  • is still mostly silent while playing
  • does not respond when others talk to him
  • is not able to point to objects when they are named
  • uses signs, grunts or gestures only when he wants something.

Children are different and may develop at different rates

If your child does not do all the things in this topic, it may be because your child is working on some different area of his learning and development at present. 

Children usually follow the same pattern of development and it is good to have reassurance that your child is developing normally in their own unique way.

If your child is very different from other children, you are worried about your child's development, or if your child’s development seems to go backwards, you should talk with a health professional about your concerns. If there is a problem, getting help and ideas early will help.  Remember that what matters is to support your child in moving forward from where they are now.

More information

Local community, school or child health nurse

  • See inside your baby's purple All About Me book.
  • Look in the phone directory under child health centres.
  • Visit your nearest child health centre.

Local family doctor

Ngala Helpline

  • 8.00am – 8.00pm 7 days a week
  • Phone: 9368 9368
  • Outside metro area – Free call 1800 111 546 (free from land line only)
  • Visit the Ngala website (external site)

Raising Children Network

Kidsafe WA

  • 8.30am – 5.00pm (Monday to Friday)
  • Phone: 9340 8509
  • Outside metro area – Free call 1800 802 244 (free from land line only)
  • Visit the Kidsafe WA website (external site)

Red Nose

  • 9.00am – 5.00pm (Monday to Friday)
  • Phone: 9474 3544
  • Outside metro area – Free call 1800 199 466 (free from land line only)
  • Visit the Red Nose (external site)

© Women’s and Children’s Health Network, reproduced with permission. The South Australian Government does not accept responsibility for the accuracy of this reproduction.


Acknowledgements
Child and Adolescent Community Health

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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