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Understanding Child Development: Key Milestones in Early Years


Throughout a child’s life, they will grow cognitively, physically, emotionally and socially, known as child development (NSPCC Learning). According to the NHS, the first five years of a child’s life are critical, as it is when their brains develop faster than at any other time in their lives. The interactions of various influences, such as biology, environment, experiences and education, will significantly impact children’s development and shape the adults they will become.

Parents and caregivers need to understand child development and key milestones, as it will help them track how their children are progressing and identify and address any development delays early. It will also give them an understanding of their role and responsibilities in their children’s development and how they can best support their learning and growth.

Understanding child development can also help identify suitable activities and environments to meet children’s needs and preferences. Providing the right learning opportunities and environment can lay a strong foundation for children in their early years, which is crucial for their educational success and beyond (Ofsted).

This blog post will explore key milestones in the early years of a child’s life and provide insights into what to look for during each milestone to help children develop into happy and healthy adults.

Understanding Child Development Key Milestones in Early Years

Infancy (0-12 Months)

The newborn stage is between 0-3 months, and the infancy stage is between 3-12 months. From an early age, babies and infants will rapidly grow and develop. Parents and caregivers need to observe and monitor physical development (strength and physical skills) milestones.

Motor skills

Babies have involuntary reflexes that are present from birth until around four months old. They include grasping, suckling and being startled. For example, their hand will close automatically when something touches their palm.

As the months go by, their involuntary reflexes progress to intentional movements as their motor skills develop. These are divided into two categories:

Fine motor skills – involve small muscle movements of the hands.

0-3 months

  • Involuntary reflexes, e.g. grasping.
  • Ineffective reaching.
  • Watches hand movements.
  • Brings their hands to their mouth.

3-6 months

  • Reaches for and tries to grasp objects, such as toys.
  • Movements are more symmetrical.

6-9 months

  • Better control when reaching for and grasping objects.
  • Moves objects from one hand to another.
  • Picks up small objects with their finger and thumb (pincer grasp).
  • Squeezes objects.

9-12 months

  • Pincer grasp improves.
  • Clasps hands.
  • Drinks from a sippy cup.
  • Shakes and throws objects.
  • Places items in containers.

Gross motor skills – involve larger muscles for movement.

0-3 months

  • Holds head and chest up during tummy time.
  • Sits with support.

3-6 months

  • Holds head upright.
  • Rolls over from tummy to back and vice versa.
  • Pushes up from tummy to elbows.

6-9 months

  • Rocks on hands and knees.
  • Sits without support.
  • Pulls towards standing

9-12 months

  • Crawls.
  • Walks with support, i.e. takes a few steps.
  • Stands and walks without support (around 12 months) but may fall.

Sensory development

In the first three months of a child’s life, they use their basic senses to learn more about their bodies and the environment. As they progress, they develop enhanced perception and explore the world more.

Sensory development is where children learn through their five senses, i.e. sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing. Here are some milestones for parents and caregivers to look out for:


  • 0-3 months– their colour vision will be limited, but they will start to make eye contact.
  • 3-6 months– photoreceptors (rods and cones) are developing in their eyes. They start to track people and objects.
  • 6-9 months– eye-hand coordination and eye control are developing, and improvements in their depth perception.
  • 9-12 months– improvements in judging distances and depth perception.


  • 0-3 months– their smell is fully developed, and they will turn towards familiar smells and food.
  • 3-6 months– they become interested in food smells and will react more to strong smells.
  • 6-9 months– they can now use their sense of smell to decide if they like or dislike something, e.g. food.
  • 9-12 months– their reactions to smells are stronger and so are their preferences.


  • 0-3 months– their touch response will be fully developed, and they will want skin-to-skin contact.
  • 3-6 months– can use both sides of their body.
  • 6-9 months– starts to grasp with thumb and forefinger and can recognise textures.
  • 9-12 months– begins to crawl and grasp, e.g. they can hold hand-held toys.


  • 0-3 months they will be attracted to the sweet taste of breast milk and formula.
  • 3-6 months– they start to show an interest in other people’s foods and become more open to different flavours.
  • 6-9 months– they begin to reach for food close by.
  • 9-12 months– they start to enjoy new foods with various tastes and textures.


  • 0-3 months– their hearing is fully developed, and they will turn and react to familiar sounds.
  • 3-6 months– they begin associating sounds with objects and start to mimic sounds.
  • 6-9 months– they start to recognise familiar words and can identify where sounds come from.
  • 9-12 months– they recognise songs and sounds and react to them.


How a child grows is a crucial indication of their health and well-being (RCPCH). While children grow at different rates, a range of measurements indicate they are developing as expected.

Baby growth charts, known as centile charts, monitor babies’ and infants’ weight, length and head circumference and track their physical development. The growth milestones will depend on the sex of the child, and further information on this is here.

Cognitive development

Physical development goes hand in hand with cognitive development, which means the study of neuroscience and psychology and a child’s ability to learn, think, understand, problem-solve and reason. There are two critical development milestones that parents and caregivers should look out for, as they are markers of cognitive development. These are:

  • Object permanence – during this stage of development, infants start to know that objects exist even if they can no longer hear or see them. They may search for something partially hidden and follow an object out of sight. Object permanence starts to develop when children are around eight months old.
  • Early language development – is important for communicating, learning and understanding and is crucial to young children’s development (Sage Publications). According to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, there are two main stages for speech and language development between 0-12 months:
  • Stage 1 (0-6 months) – they begin to understand speech and will show an interest in listening to their parents/caregivers and start looking at their faces. They will communicate using various sounds and noises, such as crying/cooing, facial expressions and smiles. In the later stages, they will experiment with different sounds, such as bubbling.
  • Stage 2 (6-12 months) – they begin to recognise specific phrases, such as ‘bye bye’ and may wave in response. They will start to turn when they hear familiar voices and respond when they hear their name. They will begin to babble and repeat single sounds, such as ‘dada’. They will also copy movements and speech sounds.

Emotional and social milestones

Emotional development refers to children’s ability to understand and manage their emotions and respond to other people’s emotions. Social development describes children’s ability to learn to interact with others and develop and sustain meaningful relationships.

During the newborn and infancy stages, children will start to recognise the adults who make them feel safe and may also be a bit more worried about people who are unfamiliar to them. They will become attached to parents and caregivers as they meet their needs, which develops trust.

Here are some emotional/social development milestones to look out for:

0-3 months

  • Makes eye contact.
  • Recognises faces and voices and turns towards them.
  • Listens to parents’/caregivers’ voices.
  • Shows excitement by waving legs and arms.
  • Cries to get needs met, e.g. hunger.
  • Begins to smile.
  • Quietens in response to touch or calm speaking.
  • Self-soothes by sucking on hands and fingers.
  • Responds to loud sounds.

3-6 months

  • Adapts cries to signal different things, e.g. hunger cries, tired cries and attention cries.
  • Becomes more familiar with people they know.
  • Attentive to new faces but may be frightened by them.
  • Smiles and laughs in response to their parents/caregivers smiling and laughing.
  • Enjoys playtime and looking at themselves in a mirror.
  • Plays with toys by shaking them.
  • Shows pleasure by cooing and smiling.
  • May begin to recognise their own name.

6-9 months

  • Cries or looks startled in response to being frightened.
  • Makes many facial expressions, such as angry, happy, surprised and sad.
  • Understands emotions, such as anger.
  • Develops strong attachments to their parents/caregivers.
  • May cry when they cannot see anyone familiar, e.g. separation anxiety.
  • Starts to show a preference for some toys, foods and sounds.
  • Begins to fear strangers or shows shyness (especially by 9 months).

9-12 months

  • Actively explores when a parent/caregiver is present.
  • Enjoys more interactive games, such as ‘peek-a-boo’.
  • Enjoys being read to and looking at books with pictures.
  • May favour people they are familiar with.
  • Cries when parents/caregivers leave the room.
  • Turns in response to their name called.
  • Listen when certain words are said, such as ‘no’.
Understanding Child Development Key Milestones in Early Years

Toddlerhood (1-3 Years)

When a child reaches toddlerhood, their growth is even more rapid. At this stage, their motor skills develop further, and they will become more active, for example:

  • Fine motor skills – they will be able to hold objects better and start to do more activities, such as scribbling, stacking objects and blocks and sorting shapes. From 18 months, they will drink from cups, eat with spoons, play with modelling dough and help dress themselves. Twinkl has further information here. At around three years old, toddlers will develop a preference for using their left or right hand and will have more muscle control (Pampers UK).
  • Gross motor skills – their large muscles are developing, and they will start to move more. They will become increasingly independent and will walk alone, crawl and be able to navigate steps and stairs with support. As they progress towards their third year, they will be squatting, running, jumping, kicking balls and exploring more. It is a time when they are at risk of hurting themselves, so parents and caregivers need to keep them close. The Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust has further information here.

Not only will toddlers’ motor skills be developing, but also their language, which is essential to communicate and interact with others. Language development occurs in infancy. Even though babies and infants do not yet possess language skills, they will communicate with sounds and facial expressions. As they move into toddlerhood, they will start to use and understand more words, for example:

  • Between 1 and 2 years old – children start to expand their vocabulary and use single words, such as ‘daddy’ or two-word phrases, e.g. ‘more juice’. They will understand more words than they can say and simple questions and instructions. They may copy words and sounds and ask questions such as ‘What’s that?’.
  • Between 2 and 3 years old – children will now start to understand more words, questions and longer instructions. They will use 4-5 word sentences, such as ‘she took my teddy, and use action words, such as ‘fall’ or ‘run’. They will ask a lot more questions and participate in pretend play. By three years old, most children recognise around 1,000 words (UK).

In toddlerhood, social interaction emerges as shyness begins to ebb. Children will start to engage with people more as they explore the world around them. They may become more interested in play and start mimicking what others do and how they behave. Around two years old, they are also likely to exhibit undesirable behaviours, such as defiance and tantrums, often known as the ‘terrible twos‘.

As toddlers approach their third year, their undesired behaviours will usually diminish, and they will begin to understand how others think and feel, i.e. empathy starts to develop. They will want to play and interact with other children more and will learn to take turns. They will also increasingly engage in pretend play and use their imaginations to express themselves.

To help children’s development during the toddler phase, they need to access early education, as it lays the foundation for their future success. It is advantageous when starting school and enhances their engagement with education (Ofsted). According to UNESCO, “the period from birth to eight years old is one of remarkable brain development for children and represents a crucial window of opportunity for education”.

As well as early education, play is also important, as it:

  • Improves children’s cognitive, physical, social and emotional development and skills.
  • Helps children make sense of the world around them and find their place in it.
  • Provides opportunities for children to mix with other children, which can help them socially, boost their confidence and regulate their emotions.
  • Enables children to learn lifelong skills they will need for study, work and relationships (nidirect), such as language, problem-solving, social and motor.
  • It is fun and vital for children’s physical and mental health and well-being.

Children need sufficient opportunities to play freely without adults guiding them all the time and have access to different types of play, especially outdoors.

Understanding Child Development Key Milestones in Early Years

Preschool Age (3-5 Years)

During the preschool stage, children continue with their rapid growth, especially in their cognitive development and thinking abilities. Parents and caregivers may notice that how they play changes along with their use of language and how they learn, think, explore and solve problems (Devon County Council). They will also begin to develop literacy and numeracy skills, such as:

Pre-reading – children will start showing an interest in reading (‘storytime’) and may pick up a book voluntarily and pretend to read a story. They may also:

  • Know how to handle and hold a book.
  • Understand that there is meaning behind the print.
  • Understand that books are read from left to right and top to bottom.
  • Begin to recognise the sounds and names of letters.
  • Make connections between stories and their own experiences and activities.
  • Retell stories.
  • Point and comment on pictures with encouragement.
  • Begin to rhyme and understand jokes.
  • Recognise their own name in print.

Maths – children begin to become more interested in numbers, and they may:

  • Talk about numbers more and ask questions about them.
  • Become more aware of the numbers around them.
  • Recognise important numbers, such as their age.
  • Be able to count from 1-10 in order.
  • Understand the relationships between numbers.
  • Start to use phrases relating to numbers and maths, such as ‘fewer than’ and ‘more than’.
  • Understand the names of numbers.
  • Start to talk about more complex maths concepts (at 5), such as time, money, size and weight.

During the preschool stage, children will also acquire increased self-awareness and what is happening in the world around them. They will pass through social and emotional milestones and will:

  • Have more self-control and fewer temper tantrums.
  • Know how to express themselves using words.
  • Be friendly and helpful.
  • Be more independent and confident and begin to challenge authority.
  • Follow simple instructions.
  • Have a better understanding of when they need to be careful.
  • Develop fear and feelings of anxiousness and jealousy.
  • Develop a sense of humour.
  • Enjoy playing by themselves.
  • Start to become more interested in playing with other children.
  • Be more likely to take turns, share toys and engage in imaginative play.
  • Begin to form friendships.
  • Have increased self-awareness and understand their needs, perspectives and feelings.
  • Begin to demonstrate empathy, e.g. be sensitive to other people’s needs, perspectives and feelings.
  • Start to understand the difference between right and wrong.
  • Be less stubborn, frustrated and aggressive but may still say hurtful things when angry.

Early education is recognised as being essential for children’s learning and their cognitive development. While preschool education is not compulsory, it is significant in children’s development, and parents and caregivers should consider it for their children. It provides an essential foundation for future learning, prepares them for school and helps them develop crucial skills. It also enables them to interact with other children and learn to develop relationships.

Pre-school education is provided by education providers, such as nursery schools, playgroups and childcare centres, who provide a safe and secure environment and play-based learning opportunities that can enhance children’s physical, cognitive, social and emotional development.

Understanding Child Development Key Milestones in Early Years

School Age (5-11 Years)

Starting school can be scary and exciting for children, parents and caregivers. During this stage of development, children will be exploring more about the world around them and how they fit into it. They will also become more independent but still need their parents and caregivers to help them feel safe and secure.

The compulsory school age for children in the UK is five years old (GOV.UK). It is where early years education ends and primary education begins. Learning becomes more structured and systematic, which is known as formal education. It is important, as it provides a foundation for learning important subjects at secondary school and equips children with the knowledge and skills they will need for further education and work. It gives them the best chances for a fulfilling adult life and a happy and healthy future.

School-age children will also begin to develop socially and emotionally. They may:

  • Enjoy playing with other children and choosing their own friends.
  • Make valued friendships where they share jokes and secrets.
  • Begin to test boundaries but will still want to please and help out.
  • Start to know what embarrassment feels like.
  • Respond to simple guidelines and able to take advice.
  • Be increasingly aware of other people’s perceptions and feelings.
  • Begin to notice other’s reactions and complain about them and their friends.
  • Lack of attentiveness but still want to behave.
  • Like to know where they stand.
  • Find it difficult to express their feelings with words and may get angry when upset.
  • Want to spend more time with friends and withdraw from their families.
  • Display many emotions, good and bad. They may be affectionate on one hand and rude on the other.
  • Begin to manage their emotions more.
  • Start to argue with family as they develop their own opinions.
  • Begin to develop their own identity.

Extracurricular activities are those that children participate in outside school and include academic enrichment, clubs, sports, music, art and volunteering. Like education, they also have a critical role in the development of school-age children. They are associated with enhanced academic performance, the development of social and emotional skills and better career success. These activities can also:

  • Boost confidence and self-esteem.
  • Help develop new skills and abilities.
  • Extend social networks.
  • Help develop meaningful relationships.
  • Foster creativity and imagination.
  • Increase engagement or attachment to school.
  • Help discover passions, pursue interests and find new hobbies.
  • Cultivates physical and mental health and well-being.

Further information on extracurricular activities is on CPD Online College here.

Understanding Child Development Key Milestones in Early Years


Child development is the cognitive, physical, emotional and social growth that a child experiences throughout their lives. In the early years, there are development milestones for parents and caregivers to look out for to track the progress of their children and identify and address any developmental delays or other issues. It is also wonderful to see when a baby first smiles or an infant says their first word or takes their first steps.

The first five years are critical for child development, and internal and external influences and their interactions can positively or negatively affect children and have lifelong impacts on their futures. Parents and caregivers need to be aware of these and their own roles and responsibilities. They must actively engage in their children’s development to ensure they meet their children’s needs, pass through development milestones successfully and have the best possible start in life.

Parents and caregivers must remember that development milestones are a rough guide, and all children are different, so they should not worry if it is taking their children longer than others. Early years children will learn and develop at their own pace, so it is important not to compare with others. If parents and caregivers have concerns about their children’s progress and development, they should speak to their GP, nursery, childminder or teacher.

Understanding Child Development Key Milestones in Early Years
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