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The experiences that children have in their first few years of life are paramount to how they develop into adults. Children change over time, from being new-born to growing into a fully functioning adult; going from dependence to independence. As a parent, it is your role to nurture your child’s development from birth, to support them in learning the crucial life skills of each developmental domain. This is the most important role that influences child development.
A child’s development is strongly correlated with how positive or negative their care and attachment is to their parent. [A parent is the main caregiver to the child]. The attachment refers to the emotional bond a parent and child have, and can impact their future relationships. Continue reading this guide to find out what the stages of child development are, and how you can promote this for your child.
The characteristics of child development stages
Child development incorporates four main characteristics that can be assessed at each stage of a child’s milestones. These characteristics are physical, intellectual, emotional and social. Although these are four separate categories, they do each intertwine with one another, as progress in one characteristic often leads to progress in another characteristic. For example, as a child’s intellectual ability increases, it influences a child’s social curiosity. You can find out more about each characteristic below.
A child begins to develop physically in the womb. A baby starts as one cell, and gradually develops in the weeks of pregnancy to form organs and limbs, to prepare for life in the world after it is born. The limbs, organs and muscles continue to grow after birth and are particularly vulnerable in the early years. This is why it is especially important to support a baby’s head, posture and positioning in its first few months of life. A child’s brain reaches 80% of its adult volume by aged three, so it is important that the head is protected.
Babies are born with unconscious reflexes that support them to engage in basic survival (such as sucking to feed, and reacting to sudden noises). As a baby grows with proper care, its muscles develop so that it can learn how to move its body. This is referred to as gross motor skills and includes actions such as sitting, moving arms and legs, and taking steps.
Once the gross motor skills start to develop, the fine motor skills follow. The fine motor skills are the smaller physical movements that require more control. These include gripping, using objects and writing.
A child’s physical development also concerns physical health. The Marmot Review into how to reduce health inequality found that giving children the best start in life was one of six key areas that could promote positive health and wellbeing across the life course.
Research by the Social Research Unit found that a child’s cognitive skills develop the most in the early years than at any other time in their lives. Even new-born babies have a natural interest in the world by looking at shapes and objects, and eventually responding to different sounds and gestures.
Intellectual development is a child’s ability to think and reason for themselves. Children are very eager to learn, which places parents in a key position to shape and teach their children how to learn and develop. A child’s brain does most of its development during early childhood, so thorough stimulation from a young age supports positive brain development and curiosity.
Babies are born with the ability to show basic emotions such as happiness or distress. This is how parents know how to respond to their child and decipher what they need. A baby’s emotions broaden as they are socialised with during childhood, with more emotions learned and displayed as they get older.
A child’s type of attachment to their parent is the basis of how a child will develop their own self-esteem. A secure attachment will lead to positive emotional, intellectual and social outcomes as the child will have more confidence in themselves to explore new things and relationships. It also reduces the risk of the child developing an unhealthy lifestyle.
Social development concerns how a child interacts with other people and things. Babies need social engagement straight from birth as it helps to stimulate them and teaches them to respond. Babies use sounds to communicate initially, until they learn how to talk and understand what is said to them. This form of social development is closely aligned to intellectual development.
The interaction that a child has with their parent helps them to process language, cognitive and social skills which form the foundations for social interaction in the child’s brain. If a child does not receive enough interaction in the early development stages, it can have negative implications for their communication in the future.
The five stages of child development in the UK
The previous section explained the characteristics of child development. Each characteristic has its own milestone indicators that help us to determine if a child is developing at the right pace. The milestones contain different actions or targets that a child should be able to accomplish at different stages of their childhood. In the UK there are five stages that exemplify key milestones.
These are Newborn, Infancy, Toddler, Preschool, and School Age. The milestones for each life stage will be explained below for each characteristic of child development. [Please note that the milestones explained below should be used as a guide to child development. Each child develops at slightly varying stages. If you are concerned about the signs of your child’s development, you should contact your health visitor or GP].
Newborn (0–3 months)
- Open and close fist.
- Put hand to mouth.
- Move arms and legs around.
- Suck and swallow.
- Stay focused on a toy or person.
- Visually track toys.
- Recognise parents’ voices.
- Calms down when rocked or soothed.
- Usually happy when not tired or hungry.
- Can be comforted by parents’ touch.
- Look at you when you talk to them.
- Can smile.
- Can respond to sound using a wider variety of noises.
- Has a different cry for a different need (e.g. full nappy or hungry).
- Enjoy interaction with people.
- Make eye contact.
Infancy (3–12 months)
- Put objects to mouth.
- Use hands to play with their feet.
- Can roll from tummy to back.
- Sit unsupported for several minutes.
- Try to feed self.
- Pick up smaller objects.
- Crawl (some children may stand with furniture).
- Eat more textured foods more frequently.
- Stack toys and put things into containers.
- Can stand alone (may be able to walk with furniture).
- Vision fully developed.
- Recognise what objects are used for.
- Notice music.
- Turn to the direction of your voice.
- Recognise their name.
- Understand words in their daily routine.
- Use objects in the correct way.
- Follow simple instructions.
- Play more games (such as puzzles and finding hidden objects).
- Laugh and cry to show emotions.
- Enjoy daily activities (such as bath time).
- Recognise other familiar people.
- May show separation anxiety.
- Enjoy range of movements.
- Observe environment in many positions.
- Will display likes and dislikes (particularly at mealtimes and bedtimes).
- Show affection to familiar people.
- May show distress if somebody else is upset.
- Enjoy giving and receiving hugs.
- Use variety of babble to get attention.
- Raise hands to be picked up.
- Listen to your voice even if they cannot see you.
- Can play simple games such as peekaboo.
- Follow some commands when used with gestures.
- Will use babble to talk frequently.
- Know what “no” means.
- May communicate with pointing and gestures.
Toddler (1–3 years)
- Turn pages of a book.
- Make marks on paper with a pen.
- Have more balance.
- Walk as main way of moving.
- Eating the same foods as the rest of the family with less mess.
- May start to climb on furniture and climb up and down stairs.
- Can remove their socks.
- Less spilling when drinking from a cup.
- More confident playing outside.
- Balance on one leg.
- Can dress themselves but may struggle with fastenings.
- Can make small shapes with play dough.
- Can use potty or even toilet with help.
- Can throw and kick a ball.
- Will point to body parts that you say.
- Say first word.
- Can point to people and toys when asked.
- Follow simple instructions.
- Can point to toys or animals when asked.
- Say up to 50 words.
- Enjoy messy play.
- Start to understand two-part requests.
- Can match shapes with awareness of size.
- Can draw circles, lines and scribble.
- Can put things away.
- Ask a lot of questions.
- Know their full name.
- Can dress themselves.
- Will throw objects on the floor to show dislike.
- Enjoy different textures.
- Will understand it is them in a mirror.
- Use gestures to get your attention.
- Can tell you what they like and don’t like.
- Can tell you how they feel.
- May have tantrums as they experience more feelings.
- Will have a favourite toy and ask you to play with them.
- Interested in other children playing.
- Say a few words that they have learned from you.
- Develop more words.
- Start to copy you doing household activities.
- May understand how to use up to 200 words to communicate.
- Can play alongside other children learning how to share.
Preschool (3–4 years)
- Use hands more accurately.
- Climb stairs more confidently.
- Can use toilet more confidently with reminders.
- Can run.
- Can use wheeled toys such as a tricycle.
- Can use a knife and fork when eating.
- Can match colours.
- Can count to 10.
- Can stick to one activity even through small distractions.
- Can follow longer instructions.
- Memory functions a lot better.
- Can choose clothes independently.
- Know their age.
- Is more at ease when their parents are not around.
- Can talk about their feelings.
- Can use sentences to communicate.
- Can play happily on their own and with other children.
- Like to play with many different toys.
- Taking part in group tasks at nursery.
School age (4–5 years)
- Fine motor skills are more developed through activities such as threading beads and using scissors
- Can draw more complex pictures (such as drawing people with correct features and limbs).
- Gross motor skills improved through child having greater ball skills and balance.
- Child uses more complicated sentences.
- Can sort items by category (e.g. books, teddies, cars).
- Understand right and wrong.
- Familiar with routines.
- Can understand more words when reading.
- Starting to develop sense of humour, understanding jokes.
- Can settle themselves down to sleep.
- Beginning to understand reasoning.
- Developing imagination through play.
- Inquisitive about other people.
- Initiate conversation.
- Enjoy making friends.
The importance of early child development
Research by the NSPCC has found that the British public do not have a strong understanding of the importance of child development and how this can be nurtured. This lack of insight could be extremely harmful to children, limiting their progress and potential later in life. The years of 0 to 5 are extremely sensitive because this is the time that Shonkoff et al (2008) identified as when the brain is more easily affected by positive and negative experiences.
The brain is developing in all areas during the early development stages of a child’s life, so a child’s experiences impact how the brain grows. A positive start in life ensures that brain development is healthy which is why it is important for parents to promote positive and loving life experiences. A weaker foundation increases the likelihood of a child having negative experiences in life.
There are many things that can negatively impact child development. Poverty is strongly linked to children having more difficulties in younger life, with higher income families resulting in children with more favourable learning outcomes, routines and healthy environments. The Joseph Roundtree Foundation (JRF) found that around 30% of children grow up in poverty; with parents carrying the weight of many societal problems. Over time, carrying this stress can cause parents to have a reduction in mental and emotional capacity to care for their child, which can risk their basic needs and lead to a breakdown in care.
Having a strong support network can help parents to mitigate this risk, promote the wellbeing of the child, and safeguard the child. Please note that if parents are suffering from adversity, it does not mean that they aren’t trying hard enough. Life can be unpredictable – but during challenging times, it is important to recognise the risks to the child.
Unfortunately, looked-after children who experience their early years living in local authority care have below average outcomes across a range of developmental milestones. This is because of the abuse or neglect that has lead them to being removed from their parents and placed into looked-after care.
These stressful situations can lead to problems with physical and mental health as well as issues with learning and behaviour. In these instances, despite children being removed from the situation, they still have less consistent caregivers, creating difficulties in forming attachments which can also cause a slowing in development (especially for the social characteristic). However, when a child has had an interrupted start in life, it is still important to promote positive foundations for their ongoing growth. Just because a child has had a negative experience, does not mean that it is too late for them to have a healthy development.
How to encourage child development in early years
As parents, there are ways in which you can support your child to have the best start in life, and nurture their progress for them to achieve their developmental milestones. We have outlined these below for each of the five early years stages.
Newborn (0–3 months)
Social – Babies learn to turn to look at someone when they are speaking during the newborn stage. If parents frequently talk and display positive noises to their child, it will help the child to become familiar with your voice and quieten down when they hear your voice. Responding to your baby as soon as they cry will also help their emotional and social development.
Emotional – A baby massage will calm your baby down and make them feel secure, helping them develop emotionally, socially and physically. Another way to support attachment is by introducing a daily routine. This will provide a nurturing secure environment to support your child’s overall development and be a positive foundation for a secure attachment.
Physical – To help your baby use their body you can do supervised tummy time (where you lay your baby on its tummy for it to try to lift its head). This will strengthen its neck and back. To help strengthen your baby’s arms and legs, allow time for your baby to be on its back so it can kick its legs and throw its arms around.
Infancy (3–12 months)
Physical – You can pick your baby up and place their feet onto the floor to mimic standing and walking. This will induce step-like motions in your baby and prepare them for using their legs to move around.
Social – Babies start to imitate during this stage, so parents can accompany words with objects to teach their child what objects are and what they are used for. They can also use hand gestures more frequently such as waving and clapping.
Intellectual – You can play games with objects to promote your child’s memory when they are a toddler. Hiding objects for your child to find is a great way to teach them about object permanence. Your child will understand that objects are still there even if they are not in sight.
Toddler (1–3 years)
Intellectual – As toddlers, children become increasingly curious about the world. Reading stories to your child will promote their imagination, and engage them with books that they can point at and listen to as you read them.
Physical – Allow your child to try and dress themselves to promote their fine and gross motor skills. You will be required to be patient, but allowing your child to have some independence will help them complete tasks themselves.
Emotional – Toddlers can begin to have a lot of tantrums as they explore who they are. Try to respond calmly to teach them how to deal with emotions.
Preschool (3–4 years)
Physical – Encourage your child to complete daily tasks as adults would, such as tidying, using a knife and fork when eating, and using the toilet properly by wiping themselves and flushing.
Social – Support your child to socialise with other children and encourage healthy communication, such as taking it in turns to talk.
Intellectual – Engage your child in the world to teach them and feed their brain. Children are increasingly interested in the world around them so explain what things are, such as fire station, flowers and insects.
School (4–5 years)
Intellectual – Practise schoolwork with your child at home (such as maths and spellings).
Physical – Encourage your child to play active games and enjoy the outdoors. Limit time in front of a TV or a gaming device.
Emotional – Talk to your child about the world and continue to play with them. Children learn best with real-life interaction and will continue to feel safe and secure.