What are developmental milestones?

Particular behaviours and skills in your baby or child, such as crawling, smiling or saying their first word, are called developmental milestones. These relate to important stages in their development, and are broadly categorised into emotional, physical, sensory and speech development.  

Newborn to three months

From birth, babies begin to learn and communicate. Straight away, they will be able to give you signals of when they are tired, hungry and awake. It is important for parents to make them feel safe and meet their needs in this new environment. Some of the milestones that can be expected in this age are related to various forms of development.

  • Social and emotional development - newborns do not understand who is caring for them and will cry when they are hungry or tired;
  • Physical development - in the first eight weeks, newborns cannot support their head and movements are involuntary or by reflex. After about eight weeks they will be able to lift their head while lying on their stomach and by three months be able to reach for something they want and grasp it briefly;
  • Sensory development - newborns are able to see, particularly at close range, but they are unable to form meaningful shapes. By about six weeks, your baby's eyes will move in unison and by three months they will be able to identify certain faces and objects. Newborns can hear (and could even hear sounds while still in the uterus). They will recognise your voice after a few weeks, and;
  • Communication - babies communicate by crying, but after about eight weeks, your baby may make cooing sounds, will listen to you and make noises as if they are talking back.

To help your newborn's development through this time, it can be helpful to hold them and sing to them, look at their face while gently speaking to them, mimic the gestures they make and hang a colourful mobile that they can see from their cot.

It is normal for your child to reach some of these milestones earlier and take longer to reach others. You may wish to talk to your baby's doctor if, by three months, your baby has not developed any control of their head and does not respond to sounds or visual cues.

3-6 months

From 3-6 months of age, babies begin to be very social. It is a very enjoyable time for you and your baby, as you learn to understand their communication style and their wants. Some of the milestones that can be expected in this age include:

  • Physical development - your baby will gain more control over their body and will be able to roll over by about 4-6 months. They will also kick their legs around and move their arms, which strengthens their muscles. They will also be able to hold things and wave them around;
  • Sight and sound - hearing and seeing will become more familiar to your baby. They will be able to follow you with their eyes and turn their heads when they hear sounds, and;
  • Speech development - your baby will be making all kinds of sounds and may be interested in understanding how words are coming from your mouth.

To help your newborn's development through this time, it can be useful to talk to them and explain what you are doing and place colourful toys nearby so they can reach for them, pick them up and look at them.

You may wish to talk to your baby's doctor if, by six months, your baby does not follow you with their eyes, does not recognise faces (e.g., mother or father) and does not make any vocal sounds.

6-9 months

Babies begin to be more active. They may experience separation anxiety when they cannot see you or do not know that you are nearby. They are developing emotionally and can have desires for a certain toy, or to be played with. They will begin to have sensations of being hungry or feeling lonely. Some of the milestones that can be expected in this age include:

  • Physical development - your baby will be putting things in their mouth to feel their texture and taste. They will also get their first tooth during this period. They may be able to sit without toppling over, they will start to move while on their stomach by pulling themselves along and eventually crawl. They will be able to move an object from one hand to the other;
  • Self care - your baby will begin to eat solid foods, including mashed vegetables and soft toast. The concept of chewing and swallowing is different to sucking and swallowing milk, so it can be hard for your baby to keep food in their mouth;
  • Sight and sound - eye muscles will be more developed and will be able to understand depth and height. They will understand that things can fall and that heights may be scary, and;
  • Speech development - the sounds that your baby is making will begin to resemble real words and they may say things like 'mama' and 'dada'. They will enjoy making sounds and will try to copy different sounds. They will listen carefully to try to understand your speech and then will talk back with various words and tones to express emotions.

To assist in your baby's development through this time, it can be helpful to play games to demonstrate height; for example, dropping a ball. It is also good to talk to them and play peek-a-boo and explain about different parts of the face and body. It is also important to let your baby interact with other people and not just toys.

You may wish to talk to your baby's doctor if, by nine months, your baby is not able to sit up, cannot hold or shake things, is not smiling or laughing out loud and not turning if their name is called.

Separation anxiety

Distress experienced, commonly by children, at the prospect of leaving familiar surroundings or people, such as their home or parents.

9-12 months

At this time, your baby will be moving around a lot and you will really need to keep an eye on them. They will also be talking to you and making recognisable sounds. They may also begin to be clingy, be wary of strangers and have identified likes and dislikes, which is part of them developing their own personality. Some milestones that can be expected at this time include:

  • Physical development - your baby will now be able to roll around and crawl. They will also pull themselves up to a standing position using nearby furniture. Some babies may even begin to walk, but many will not until after 12 months. They will begin to feed themselves (or at least play with their food) and drink from a closed cup with a spout, and;
  • Speech development - your baby will recognise and understand many words and shake their head to say no. Their sounds will become more specific and they may say things like 'mum-mum' and 'dad-dad'. They will enjoy listening to music and rhymes, which can help them to further understand language.

To assist in your baby's development through this time, it can be helpful to sing songs and talk to them. It can also help to play hiding games and encourage them to push a trolley to help them learn to walk.

You may wish to talk to your baby's doctor if, by 12 months, your baby cannot sit or move around on their own.

Developmental milestones such as sitting, crawling and standing.A baby displaying sitting, crawling and standing developmental stages. 

1-2 years

The age of 1-2 years brings significant changes in physical, emotional and language skills. Your child will realise that they are their own person, which allows them to understand and use terms such as me and mine. Your child will be dependent and attached to you and is probably afraid of separation. Some developmental milestones that can be observed at this time include:

  • Social development - your chid will take an interest in other children and begin to imitate things they see. They may help in the dressing process as they want to copy what they have seen you do. They are curious, but depend on you for reassurance;
  • Thinking - your child's memory is improving and they are developing the concept of understanding. This can be in the form of grouping certain objects together and playing games that involve remembering how things fit together;
  • Physical development - your child will be moving around the house. By about 15 months, your child will probably walk on their own and by two years, they will be able to run. They may also be able to go down stairs while holding onto a rail. They will also be able to press buttons and turn knobs, and;
  • Speech development - they will probably be able to speak about 10 words by 15 months and about 50 words by two years. Also by two years, they will probably be able to ask for what they want.

To assist in your baby's development through this time, it can be helpful to give them toys with buttons and knobs or puzzles that fit together. Reading books together is also a great activity.

You may wish to talk to your child's doctor if, by two years, your child is not yet walking, does not respond when spoken to and only uses gestures or grunts to indicate they want something.

2-3 years

Your toddler will be developing more feelings between the ages of two and three years, which commonly leads to tantrums. This can happen as they are beginning to know what they want and do not want. This can lead to them saying 'NO' a lot and cause them to be bossy. Your toddler will be understanding and repeating more and more words, so it is important to be mindful of what you say around them. Some other milestones that will occur in this time include:

  • Physical development - your toddler will become more daring physically, which will require setting limits for safety. They often do not know when to stop and will be testing limits. During this time they will be able to climb up and down stairs, kick a ball and jump;
  • Speech development - your toddler's language will be rapidly improving. They will be able to name many things and put short sentences together, although the words in the sentences may not be pronounced clearly. They will also be able to follow instructions given by a parent. They may also enjoy playing make-believe, and;
  • Self care - your toddler may also be ready to use the toilet; however, some toddlers may prefer nappies for a little while longer.

To help your toddler's development at this time, it can help to give encouragement and support by reading aloud with them and talking about the pictures in the book. Show an interest in your toddler and ask them questions. Give them a chance to explore by playing on safe playground equipment.

You may wish to talk to your child's doctor if, by three years, your child does not play with other children, is far less active than other children their age, or cannot feed themselves.

3-4 years

Your child will be learning how to get along with others and will begin to understand social skills such as being kind and sharing. They will enjoy playing with other children and will learn that they also have feelings. They will develop a sense of humour and may repeat words that they find funny. Some other milestones that will occur at this time include:

  • Physical development - your child will be very active, but can get overtired. They will also be able to bounce a ball, but may have trouble catching. They will also be able to hold a pencil correctly and draw a person;
  • Speech development - they will be able to speak more clearly and use simple sentences. They may also ask questions that start with 'what is', 'where is', 'who is' and 'why is'. Your toddler will begin to understand the concept of time and that night follows day;
  • Self care - your child will probably be dry during the day and managing to use the toilet or potty properly at this age. This will further develop in time, and;
  • Social development - your child may also start childcare or kindergarten. This separation can be hard at first, but will probably resolve into a fun time for your child and a well-earned break for you.

To assist in your toddler's development at this time, you can encourage them to play and run around, particularly with games that involve rules. You can also encourage them to do artistic activities including drawing and painting.

You may wish to talk to your child's doctor if, by four years, your child does not play with other children, is not toilet trained and cannot follow instructions.