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Beginners Guide To Child Development – Get Your Little One Thriving

By Paula McLaren - Norland Nurse NNEB RSH | Updated: 27 October 2021

I have always found early child development fascinating. To see what a young child can learn from birth to preschool is not only fascinating but equally astounding! 

At no other time in our lives do humans absorb and develop emotionally and physically as much as they do in their early years.

Watching your child grow and develop is a joyous experience and as parents, we can't wait to see them achieve those all-important milestones, such as saying their first word and taking their first step.

However, child development is so much more than the obvious developmental milestones that we all recognise...

As parents, how we can make sure that we offer our children all the learning opportunities necessary to become the best that they can possibly be, intellectually, emotionally and physically?

What is child development?

So what is child development?

Well, in a nutshell, it is the physical, language, social and emotional changes that occur in a child from birth to adulthood. Development is strongly influenced by many factors, including genetics, environmental and social factors as well as an individual child's ability and desire to learn.

It is important to remember that all children will learn at a different pace and will show strengths and weaknesses in certain areas just as we do as adults. However, as parents and carers, we can help the children in our care to reach their full potential in all areas by knowing what opportunities to offer them, to help them thrive.

It is especially important with babies and young children that these opportunities to develop are fun and naturally progressive and that is why learning through play and daily activities is so important at this stage. We need to sow the seed that learning is fun and encourage our children to be inquisitive while challenging them to explore and develop on every level in a fun and unpressurised way.

What are the 5 areas of child development?

Child development can be broken down into 5 areas. They are...

  • Cognitive
  • Social & Emotional
  • Language
  • Fine Motor Skills (Physical)
  • Gross Motor Skills (Physical)

Each of these areas of development progress goes hand in hand with each other and many play opportunities will encompass more than one category. 

5 areas of child development

Healthy child development is where children of all abilities are able to flourish in an environment where all their emotional, physical, emotional and educational needs are met.

That is why creating a safe and loving home environment is so important. This means ensuring spending time with family, playing, singing, reading and talking together along with healthy nutrition, exercise and adequate sleep are all present.

That does sound like a tall order, I know... but it is achievable!

Whilst specific activities built into the daily routine a couple of times a day are important, the way you communicate with your baby or toddler on a daily basis is also hugely implemental in their development.

Professional monitoring

When it comes to monitoring the development of children it is good to know that you are not alone.

Being well informed yourself about what your baby or young child should be doing on their developmental journey is, of course, ideal, but having the comfort of professional assessments along the way is also very important.

The assessments that your child receives in the first two and half years will give your reassurance that your little one is doing fine and that if there are any concerns you can discuss them and if need be have them addressed.

These assessments start immediately after birth where your baby will undergo a thorough newborn physical examination. Between 5-8 days your baby will have a heel prick test to screen for sickle cell disease and cystic fibrosis and soon after birth, your baby will also have a hearing test.

In the early weeks, there will be a lot of focus on healthy weight gain and how successfully your baby is feeding but there is always support on hand to help you through this time and establish a stable and healthy feeding plan. Be sure to check out my Breastfeeding 101 article for more information about feeding a newborn!

Further developmental checks will be carried out at 10-14 days after birth then again at 6-8 weeks where vaccination schedules will be discussed.

You will then be offered developmental checks at 9-12 months and 2-1/2 years of age and in some cases, an 18-month check is also available.

professional monitoring child development

Make the most of these opportunities to discuss your child's development with a professional as most developmental concerns are unfounded but if there are any issues early detection is always best.

Know what to expect

Knowing what to expect as your child develops is also important. Especially as all children are unique in their learning. Most will follow a similar sequence especially when it comes to physical development, but as long as your child is developing within the normal healthy parameters then all is fine.

But always remember, if at any point you are concerned about your child's developmental progress then always consult a medical professional. In all but rare cases, there is nothing to worry about but setting your mind to rest is what is most important in order for you to move forward.

Having a developmental chart is a great way of keeping an eye on how your child is doing and to see if there are any areas where you may be able to give them a helping hand, by providing appropriate learning through play and daily activities. That is why I have created a FREE downloadable, printable developmental milestones chart where you can note down your little ones progress. The chart is designed as guidance to the early stages of child development from birth to preschool. It enables you to chart your child's developmental progress in all the 5 main development categories. It really is a useful tool that so many parents have already found to be an invaluable resource.

Don't compare and compete

As humans, it is normal for us to want our children to be the best.

However, comparing your child to another is never advisable as each child is, as each adult is, an individual, with unique characteristics and strengths and weaknesses.

To be human is to be imperfect and your child is no exception.

Acceptance, patience, love and understanding are all that is required from you as a parent. As well as offering your little one all the opportunities you can to learn and develop in a safe, non pressurised, nurturing environment. 

Cherish every moment with your child from the first smile, to the first word, to the first drawing that they proudly show you. Make them feel cherished, loved, worthy and give them a strong sense of self. If you do all these things you will be setting your child on the road to being the best that they can be.

Make learning fun

In order to encourage healthy child development, it is important to make learning FUN.

In fact, from birth to preschool, ensuring that your child reaches all the milestones is fundamentally through play and everyday activities.

Every word you speak and every experience you share with your young child contributes to their all-round development. I cannot stress how important learning through play can be for your child!

From the day they are born your little one will be embarking upon a wonderful journey of learning about their own bodies and what they can do, as well as learning to understand the world they live in and the people they share it with. 

make learning fun child development

Knowing what stages they are going through and what you can do as a parent to make the most of those stages through your daily interaction and by offering fun learning opportunities is vital.

Best Parenting Practices

There are many things you can do as a parent to ensure the success of and support your child's development. Following certain simple parenting practices in a consistent fashion will provide your little one with a safe and secure place to learn and develop.

In a recent scientific study, the following observations were made with regard to key ways that parents can support their child's healthy development.

  • Following the child’s lead and responding in a predictable way
  • Showing warmth and sensitivity
  • Having routines and household rules
  • Sharing books and talking with children
  • Supporting health and safety
  • Using appropriate discipline without harshness

It was found that parents who used these practices could help their children stay healthy, be safe, and be successful in many areas including emotional, behavioural, cognitive, and social.

Through play as a parent, you can connect fully with your child and have lots of fun in the process. However, you should try and remember to support and take part in your child’s play activities but try not to direct what happens. It’s important you give your little one time, freedom and choices in play. 

Offering opportunities to learn

So how do we offer opportunities to learn? Well, from the moment your baby enters the world, you become the focus of their new little world. So even at this early age, your close interaction with them will start them on their developmental journey. In fact, even in the womb, the sound of your voice will have prepared them for meeting you and your partner.

In the early weeks, the stages of development in babies focus primarily on the senses.

Their sight, hearing, sense of touch and smell are all primed for their survival and growth. Your facial expressions and the sound of your voice are their main focus as is their reliance on you for food, warmth, nappy changing and general comfort and wellbeing.

offering opportunities to learn child development

Playing your baby by doing things such as talking in an animated fashion, telling them what you are doing as your dress them and singing to them when you are feeding them are all fantastic learning opportunities for your baby.

Take them for walks and introduce them to their family and offer them opportunities to kick and move freely. Even at a few weeks old you can show them books and toys specifically designed for newborns, all of these activities no matter how small will be stimulating your baby's language, cognitive, social and physical development.

Gradually, as their awareness grows, you will be able to move onto more prolonged periods of play and before you know it they will be reaching out to grasp toys that you offer, be able to focus more clearly on what you are doing and start to babble back to you in conversation.

So as you can already see children's development is not all about structured play and this is never more evident than in the early months of life.

Daily routines

Establishing the habit of talking, chatting and engaging with your little one is not only important for language development in children but also fulfils the emotional needs of a child and boosts their self-esteem.

If you get into the habit of talking about what you are doing from getting dressed, preparing breakfast or simply folding the laundry you will be offering your little one opportunities to learn and develop in a natural way.

There are dozens of opportunities in your everyday life to engage your little one in what you are doing and do as much as you can with them. For example, chat while giving your baby a bath and name body parts when getting dressed or undressed. They will absorb it all, and as they learn to talk, it will offer them opportunities to ask questions and develop an enquiring mind.

And of course, there are always books!

I cannot overemphasise the importance of introducing your children to the world of books and how beneficial it is for your little one's development to include daily book time (particularly at bedtime!) into their routine. Not only do books improve language development but memory, imagination and emotional development too.

When it comes to choosing books for children make sure they are age-appropriate are of different types and cover a range of topics. Picture books, as well as storybooks, are equally important and just the act of sharing a book with your baby or toddler is a wonderful bonding experience. Building reading opportunities into your everyday routine such as after lunch or before bed or whenever your child needs a quiet moment is hugely beneficial on so many levels. If you are at a loss as what books to choose for your little one read my Best Baby Books post to get you started.

talk and listen child development

Talk And Listen

I am a great advocator of talking to babies and listening to children. It is thought that babies learn the most important elements of language in the first 12 months of life before they can even speak. This fact alone tells us as parents how important it is for us to talk to our babies from day one.

We as humans all like to feel valued and heard and children are no exception. Words are also free and our time and attention is something we can give our children on a daily basis.

Of course, we all have busy stressful lives and that is why getting into the habit of just talking, chatting and listening as you go about your daily lives together is so important.

In addition, setting aside certain times of the day for fully focused talking and listening is important. This is best done at mealtimes, bath time and bedtime.

Meeting the emotional needs of your child is vital for their healthy development and having your undivided attention at these times of the day will ensure that you are providing the necessary nurturing environment for your little one to thrive.

I have written about this in more depth in my post on How to Listen to Your Child where you can get a better insight into why listening is so important.

Social development in children is also helped by talking and listening. From their interactions with you, they will develop the words they need to communicate efficiently and compassionately. By showing them how to listen and how to talk about their feelings and communicate with others in a kind and thoughtful way they will, in turn, learn how to talk about their own feelings and how to listen to others.

Learning through play

When it comes to offering the best opportunities for fulfilling the developmental stages in children, learning through play is the most obvious thing that springs to mind.

On top of the daily ongoing opportunities that I have talked about so far, offering specific age-appropriate toys and activities is also essential to your child's healthy development. Check out my list of the best development toys to get you started. Check out my list of the best development toys to get you started.

Knowing what toys or activities are best for helping your child reach their developmental milestones can be a bit daunting so here is a quick list of some of the types of play and play opportunities you should try to include:

Activities for child development

For physical development in children:

- Fine Motor

  • Construction toys
  • Stacking toys
  • Paints
  • Simple jigsaws
  • PlayDough
  • Pencils and paper
fine motor skills child development

Be sure to keep an eye on my Parenting Courses Page, I have something special coming through all about the best developmental activities and my secret formula to get your little one thriving, guaranteed! Sign up to my mailing list to be the first to know when it's live too!

Social interaction

When talking about the stages in a child's development and reaching their developmental milestones one should not forget the importance of social interactions.

As human beings, we are social animals and from the moment of birth, a baby delights in being spoken to, sung to and held close. As they grow ensuring that your child has healthy and varied social interactions is important for their mental, emotional and social wellbeing.

cognitive development child development

You can ensure that your child gets the correct amount of social interaction from you by talking, listening and taking an interest, by mother and baby groups and toddler groups as they get older it is an excellent way to expose your child to social situations. 

When the time comes for your child to go to nursery school hopefully your little one will have already been exposed to a variety of social situations involving other children of their own and different age groups, so will be ready to take this next big step.

Nursery will continue the work you started at home with play-based learning being a strong focus, especially if you choose Montessori Childcare which focuses very strongly on the principles of learning through play.

Your child's experience at nursery school will be the first time that they have had to spend an extended period of time away from you, they will have to learn to fend for themselves and make their own social decisions about who to play with and how to behave in general.

This all sounds quite daunting I know, but if you have exposed your little one to as many social situations as possible before they have to embark on this part of their education, they will be well equipped to handle whatever comes their way!

However, if they are struggling in any area you and their teachers will be there to give them a helping hand as they continue on their developmental journey.

Just remember

Being a parent is hard work and raising a happy, healthy, confident child can be daunting. But by taking your time and not comparing your little one's development to others will help you raise an amazingly unique individual.

No human being develops to a strict pre-designated plan but in the early years, there are lots of milestones we as parents can look out for and there is a lot we can do to help our children achieve these milestones in a natural, happy and loving way in order to give them a good start in life.

Teething to Tantrums Author

Paula McLaren is the founder of Teething to Tantrums and has been in the childcare industry as a Norland Nanny since 1982. Since then, her mission has been to help parents become the best they can possibly be. And each year, she continues to help more families understand their child's development, the trials and joys of parenting and of course, how to care for their little ones.

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