Q&A: Toddler Milestones

Childhood Development expert, Anastasia Moloney, answers your questions on toddler milestones

toddler sitting on potty with toys

Toddlerhood is a short but important time for childhood development with many significant milestones. Toddlers are constantly exploring, growing, changing and challenging us. It’s a truly exciting and sometimes trying time. Because every child is so different, this can lead to many questions about how your child is progressing. Childhood Development expert, Anastasia Moloney, answers your most pressing questions. 

 

Q: What’s the appropriate diet for a toddler? My 13 month old is transitioning from a diet of mostly milk to mostly solids, and I don’t know what’s the right pace, volume/amounts or even what’s safe (for instance, we’re fine w/grapes and strawberries but not yet ready for apple chunks).

A: Food can be challenging to introduce especially at this age as children often show pickiness or preferences as they are growing their diet and variety of foods. At meal time, it’s best to offer three or four options on the plate from different food groups, for example cut up grapes, chicken, peas, and some yogurt. If your child doesn’t show interest in something the first time you put it on their plate, try again. Kids often need to see a food several times often before wanting to try it. You mentioned apples were still a challenge, depending on how many teeth your child has, find foods that are manageable to chew-so maybe start with applesauce. It is also important to try food with different textures, because at this age children are still new to textures.

As for amounts, each child is different. They will typically eat what they need. As long as your child is happy during meal time, engages with you and has energy for play, they are typically getting enough to eat. Your pediatrician is also a great resource for this as they can monitor your child’s weight gain. It is very important to keep meal time positive, and not to make it a power struggle over how much or what they eat. At this age we need to create positive routines around eating to set them up for healthy eating habits to come. Thanks for the great question, eating can be so tricky I hope this helps!

Q: When is the right moment to introduce a sport as a regular activity? 

A: We want to create healthy and active lifestyles for our children without pushing them too hard at a young age, so where is the balance? To be honest, there is no set answer. It is up to you to decide to try different activities and to see how your child responds. There are so many options for toddlers these days and it’s tempting to try it all. Depending on the sport, 2 year olds are still developing hand-eye coordination so something like t-ball may be too challenging. Some families love starting soccer early, which is great for body control and coordination which is something they begin to develop at around 2. Swimming can be a great place to start, as it’s something you can join in with and it’s important to teach water safety early on. Many swimming classes require parent/child involvement to begin with which can be a nice way to connect. Pay attention to what your child enjoys and then go with it. You don’t want to force them to play sports at this age but rather establish a fun and healthy routine. Young children can learn a lot of great social skills in these new group settings including turn taking and also learning about their own bodies, coordination and movement.

Q: Any secrets to making potty training easier? We just started training our 2.5 year old and it has been very hit and miss. She has gone on the potty no problem but then will cry and freak out when we try to get her to go again later in the day. We are also trying to figure out better ways of getting her to verbalize that she needs to go/getting her to understand what it feels like when she has to go. Any insight will help. 

A: Potty training can be a real challenge. At first it’s often hard for children to get into the routine of stopping whatever it is they’re doing to go to the bathroom. Also, at first they need to use the bathroom every 30 minutes which is a lot for them to have to go try so they tend to lose interest. A few ideas, are to give a special reward every time she goes to the bathroom. This needs to be a reward saved just for going to the potty. Sometimes the extra motivation helps to take that break to go to the toilet. Right now, my son loves these special fruit snacks so we save these just for when he goes to the bathroom. It’s important to stick with it and slowly fade out the rewards once your child is consistently using the potty.

Another trick is to get her to sit on the potty for longer is to have a special bin of toys or books in the bathroom that she can only explore when she goes to the bathroom.

As for encouraging your child to verbalize, you can try using a schedule where at first you begin by taking her to the potty every 20-30 minutes and then increasing the time in between visits as she stays dry. Once she stays dry for a length of time, you can switch to asking her if she needs to go and if she always says ‘no’ after a few times, have her go anyway. By switching from taking her often, to asking her yes or no, you are giving her the chance to check in with her body to see if she needs to go. Once she’s pretty consistent with letting you know yes/no, then she will eventually begin to let you know by herself. These steps allow her to identify the feeling of ‘needing to go’ and help her practice her response. Don’t get frustrated as there are plenty of children that show initial interest and then suddenly lose interest. If it becomes too much of a battle, take a break from potty training and try again a few weeks later. For more tips, see our article on 10 signs your child is ready for potty training.

Q: My 16 month old started throwing tantrums and sometimes it’s not easy to say what he wants, as he doesn’t speak yet. What’s the best way to react do we stop the tantrums? Also, how common are tantrums? Thank you!

A: Tantrums are very common for toddlers, especially because they don’t have the words to express what they want or need. Often we know what our toddler wants, and we can provide the words, “you are mad because you wanted…”.  At this age the best thing to do is to model the words, if it’s appropriate you can help give them the item, if it isn’t then redirect them to something they can have. Giving them a choice of items (first chosen by you) often helps to redirect them as it gives them the power to decide.

As a preventative measure, you can give your child warnings and set routines, which can help them know what to expect and will decrease tantrums. This is especially important as they get older. Tantrums will continue to happen as they learn how to respond to the various emotions they feel.

16 months is a great time to also teach your child to ask for help. Examples of this might be bringing an item to you, signing help or attempting to say it in some way. Model this word often, when you think this might be what your child is looking for and they can learn to seek out help instead of automatically getting frustrated. Continue teaching and building his vocab on emotions through modeling as the opportunities present themselves throughout the day. Even if he isn’t talking yet, the more he hears it, the more naturally it will comets him once he starts using his words.

Q: At what age does it become easier for children to be apart from their mothers? My child is 2 years 4 months and cries every time I leave her, even with very well known adults. It’s only for a few minutes, but it breaks my heart.

A: This is very hard on parents. Some children have a harder time separating than others. The good news is that she can quickly move on once you’re gone, so the focus is on the drop off. I would recommend creating a special routine specifically for drop off. This can be as simple as singing a song to distract, or having a special hug together. Try to involve her incoming up with whatever it is you decide to do, so that she feels more in control of the situation. In time this should hopefully help to make the transition easier. It’s also always helpful to remind her how much you care about her and miss her, but how much fun she has when you drop her off and how you will always come back. Hope this helps, hang in there over time it will get easier. It is a part of your child’s development and each child is unique in how they move through the development phase. Find out more in our article on How to help your toddler with separation anxiety.

Q: I’m still breastfeeding my 17 month old. How do I transition from this as he does like milk or take a bottle. He still wakes up at night to feed when he is teething or not feeling well. Thank you!

A: Breastfeeding can continue to be a great supplement to your child’s diet. It’s also a source of great comfort. If you’re interested in weaning you can set a routine where you only breastfeed certain times a day such as morning and evening, and the others you offer only milk, water and solids. If there is no option for him to breastfeed, then he will hopefully be more inclined to explore other options. You might need to play around a bit about when to offer him a cup. I wouldn’t try right after breastfeeding, but rather when he is hungry or thirsty. At 17 months I would let him try straw or sippy cups, some children are extra picky about which one they take to so you might need to try a few different options.

As for waking up, toddlers often have many new reasons for sleep disruptions like you said such as teething, being sick, or growing pains. If you feed on these nights, you are giving them the comfort they need but you can also be disrupting their normal routine and may need to reset the routine.  You can try other forms of comfort to help them get back to sleep during this time instead of breastfeeding. Some ideas could include a pacifier, a brief back rub, comforting words, or snuggling depending on what works for you and your child.

Q: How do you help your toddler with their newly developed fear of the dark?

A: Toddler fears can be difficult to address because they can feel very real to them. It is important to acknowledge their fear and work together to find strategies to feel safe. Continue to remind your child that they are safe and that you are here to help them. One of my favorite strategies for addressing fears is to read stories about being afraid of the dark or creating a story together about the fear and then come up with ideas about what would make it not so scary for them. For fear of the dark, allowing them to use a flashlight to play and explore in the dark can be fun and help them to feel less scared. You could also choose a night light together that may help them feel safe in their room when it’s dark.

Q: How do I transition my 13 month old from using a bottle for his morning and night milk? I did try a sippy cup before, but he kept pooling the milk in his mouth and dribbling down his chest. With the bottle he actually drinks it. 

A: This transition can be hard for some kids because they have a strong preference to the bottle or breastfeeding because the sucking motion can be soothing. I would experiment with different cups to see what he is most successful with. It will definitely take some practice. Some kids prefer straw cups, while others prefer sippy cups. There are so many different types of sippy cups so try using one that slows down the flow of the milk to begin with. There are different ways to transition, but as long as he is eating other solids and consuming some milk without the bottle, it may be a few tough days, but transitioning completely to a different type of cup would probably best. See our article for more information on How to wean your toddler from a bottle.

Q: Do you have any tips for fostering a healthy relationship between your toddler (mine is 3.5) and their newly arrived baby sibling? We are trying to include him in helping with the baby – but he is showing very little interest.

A: Introducing a new baby into the family can be challenging. In time their relationship will grow especially once they can interact more. Including your toddler to help with baby or other big boy chores will help him feel empowered as the big brother, this however needs to be accompanied with a lot of praise. Some other ways to encourage him to get used to the new baby is to whenever possible, (and where it isn’t taking away attention) include baby in the play or have baby play near him.  This allows him to get used to baby being in his space. For instance if you need to feed baby, invite him to join and read a story all together; if your toddler is playing with cars on the ground find a safe spot where baby can explore a safe car in the same area; sing songs all together.

Some other things that will help over time are reading stories about being a big brother, spending special one-on-one time with his brother and continuing working on building and encouraging him when he’s willing to help as a big brother. Good luck! It will take time for him to adjust, but keep working at it!

Q: What age can a child be expected to use a fork or spoon? My 2.5 year old asks for utensils but they get abandoned quickly. Usually fine with using hands but certain foods are just a huge mess! I see other kids his age eating much more neatly. Anything we can do to help improve his motor skills around this? For now we just use a lot of positive reinforcement when he eats like a ‘big boy.’

A: Positive reinforcement is a great way to encourage utensil use and very important as they develop these independence skills, good job mama!  Some foods are hard to get on a fork or spoon, so those will naturally be messier as the skill develops. Try for example when serving pasta, find noodles that might be easier to pick up with a fork to eliminate mess and let them practice.  Feeding is a self help skill that children develop along with other self help skills such as using the bathroom, getting dressed, and washing hands-these develop at different rates for different children and are usually developed by 4.

You can always do more fine motor activities to increase their hand strength which can help with controlling utensils, crayons, etc. Fine motor activities are ones that focus on strengthening the hand muscles and some fun ones for 2.5 year olds include play doh, spray bottles, child safe beginning scissors, imitating shapes or lines while drawing, and starting to string larger beads.

Q: What age can a child be expected to use a fork or spoon? My 2.5 year old asks for utensils but they get abandoned quickly. Usually fine with using hands but certain foods are just a huge mess! I see other kids his age eating much more neatly. Anything we can do to help improve his motor skills around this? For now we just use a lot of positive reinforcement when he eats like a ‘big boy.’

A: Positive reinforcement is a great way to encourage utensil use and very important as they develop these independent skills, good job mama! Some foods are hard to get on a fork or spoon, so will naturally be messier as the skill develops. Try for example when serving pasta to find noodles that might be easier to pick up with a fork to eliminate mess and let them practice.  Feeding is a self help skill that children develop along with other self help skills such as using the bathroom, getting dressed, and washing hand. These develop at different rates for different children but are usually developed by about 4.

You can always do more fine motor activities to increase their hand strength which can help with controlling utensils, crayons, etc. Fine motor activities are ones that focus on strengthening the hand muscles and some fun ones for 2.5 year olds include play doh, spray bottles, child safe beginner scissors, copying shapes or lines while drawing, and starting to string larger beads.

Q: Realistic guidelines for screen time? And ideas to incorporate or limit it? In this modern world it’s hard to avoid 100% of the time!

A: The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released a new study suggesting children between 2 and 4 should spend no more than an hour in front of the screen, which is similar to what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at this age.  The WHO in the same article recommends 180 minutes of physical activity a day for this age group as well as sleep guidelines. This is to guide us to make sure we are creating a proper routine to encourage a balance between, sleep and physical activities. You can find out more in our article about the impact of excess screen time on kids.

With this guideline set, as you mentioned technology is hard to avoid in our daily routines. Some ways I like to use technology for the toddler age group is interactive songs, kids yoga, etc. Although you candy these things without the use of technology, as a treat, it might be fu for your child to follow someone else on the screen. I have also found that you can find some simple educational apps that involve simple puzzles, counting, or beginning reading skills. For ideas on screen-free time, see more in our article on 20 picks for screen-free fun.

Q: I have a 2 year old boy, and I am constantly wondering if he is progressing normally or not and if it’s normal to have regression during this time or if I should be concerned, especially about things that appear to be sensory related like tags in clothes, or shoes, or tantrums etc.

A: I appreciate the hard question. As parents we are constantly wondering what is “typical” and what our children might need  more help with. It is always important to address any concerns you have and your pediatrician is the best resource to start with as they can help connect you with the right local resources. If you would also like a reputable online resource to look at important milestones for your child’s age, zerotothree.org can be a place to start, however it is important to have someone help you look at the whole picture so you can both understand what would best help your child’s individual needs to help him succeed in his daily routines. Hope this is a helpful start.

At what point should you see language develop ie how many words should a toddler be able to articulate properly and what are the signs their language is progressing appropriately

Thanks for the question!  I feel like this is a common one especially since kids each develop language at their own rates, but it is hard not to compare to other children the same age as some kids talk a lot more or less even just depending on personality. When looking at language, we also want to look at the receptive (meaning understanding) as well as the expressive (meaning talking).  I will outline a few guidelines for milestones and hopefully that will give you a baseline. As I have mentioned previously, if you have any concerns or feel like you haven’t seen your child reach some of the milestones never hesitate to ask your pediatrician they can help guide you to appropriate local resources. By the end of 12 months your child should try to imitate sounds, say some words like “mama” or “dada”, and recognize simple, common words.  By the end of 18 months, you should see up to 10 words, recognize familiar people, objects and body parts, and follow the simple directions. By the end of 24 months you should begin to see simple 2 word phrases, speak about 50 words that you can understand at least half the time, and follow and understand simple commands and questions. Readingrockets.org can give a more expanded version of these milestones.

Q: At what point should you see language develop? How many words should a toddler be able to articulate properly and what are the signs their language is progressing appropriately?

A: This is a common question especially since kids develop language at their own rates. But as a parent, it is hard not to compare your child to other children the same age as some kids talk a lot more or less. When looking at language, we also want to look at the receptive (meaning ‘understanding’) as well as the expressive (meaning ‘talking’). I will outline a few guidelines for milestones and hopefully this will give you a baseline. As I have mentioned previously, if you have any concerns or feel like you haven’t seen your child reach some of the milestones never hesitate to ask your pediatrician as they can help guide you to appropriate local resources.

By the end of 12 months your child should try to imitate sounds and say some words like “mama” or “dada”, and recognize simple, common words like “hello”, “yes”, “no” etc. By the end of 18 months, you should see them using up to 10 words, recognizing familiar people, objects and body parts, and following simple directions. By the end of 24 months you should begin to see them using simple 2 word phrases, speaking about 50 words that you can understand at least half of the time, and following and understanding simple commands and questions. They key is to treat your child like a conversationalist. Talk to them, read to them, point things out, talk about what you’re doing, even if they don’t seem like they’re listening, they will begin to pick things up. Readingrockets.org can give a more expanded version of these milestones.

Q: What’s the best way to tell an exploring little child that doing certain things (like going down the stairs) is not safe given that they don’t fully understand you?

A: You don’t want to feel like you are saying no all day, but you want to keep them safe. The best way to do this is to keep their exploring areas as safe as possible, such as putting a gate on the stairs, locking up what they cannot have, anything you can to make it a safe exploring area. Then you can take some time teaching them how to do certain things safely. For stairs, try teaching them to sit down, turn around and go down the stairs backwards on their stomach. The more you practice, the safer s/he can be on those obstacles. There will be time when they are not allowed to do certain things because of safety issues so expect meltdowns. This is normal but the more he/she can explore his/her environment, the less frustrated he/she will be.

Q: What are the best potty training guidelines? My daughter is currently 25 months old; hoping to train her by 27 months before baby number two arrives. Thanks!

A: Potty training can be tricky if she’s not interested. Assuming she has shown some interest I would try the intensive 3-day approach. Basically, you try not to go out for a few days and really focus on potty training. Try taking her every 15 to 20 minutes at first and give her plenty to drink, so she has a lot of opportunity to be successful. Reward her when she’s successful and keep it very positive, even if she has an accident. So she gets excited about the process, put some toys in the bathroom that she can play with while sitting on the toilet. Make sure these toys/ books are only used for potty time to keep them special. As she has more successful attempts increase the amount of time in between each potty session. Some children love picking out big kid underwear when you are deciding to potty train so they have some say in it too.

Once baby arrives, you might notice that your toddler regresses a bit. This is totally normal when there are big changes like new brother or sister! Stick with your reinforcements and continue to encourage and be really positive each time she uses the potty.