Toddler Development

Editor(s): Maureen Black.

Key Messages

• The range of skills that toddlers master from 1 to 3 years of age, including walking, talking, self-feeding the family diet, sleeping through the night, bowel and bladder control, and emotional regulation, presents both joy and challenges to parents

• Neophobia (i.e., hesitancy to try new foods) and pickiness (i.e., food selectiveness) are common examples of toddlers’ drive for autonomy and are, in most cases, transitional

• Effective parents of toddlers provide age-appropriate settings and opportunities for their toddler, read their toddler’s cues, and respond in a manner that is prompt, appropriate, and nurturant, although not necessarily conciliatory.


Toddlerhood, the period from 12 to 36 months (ages 1–3 years), represents striking changes in children’s development. Along with mastery of skills such as walking, talking, self-feeding the family diet, sleeping through the night, and bowel and bladder control, toddlers strive for autonomy as they learn to regulate their emotions. Professional organizations, including the Center for Disease Control and Prevention [1], American Academy of Pediatrics [2], United States Department of Agriculture [3], and Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology [4] provide guidelines for many aspects of toddler development.

Toddlers’ motor development proceeds from the wide-based unsteady gait of an infant to a heel-toe steady stride and then to running, kicking, climbing, and jumping. Toddlers gain their motor skills through play, and most love to run and play outdoors. Playgrounds provide opportunities for toddlers to have fun while gaining skills. Canada has national guidelines for daily movement among toddlers, including ≥ 3 hours of physical activity (including≥ 1 hour/day of energetic physical activity for toddlers > 2 years) [4]. Screen time (television, movies, tablets, phones, etc.) has increased substantially among toddlers, especially older toddlers and those from low-in-come and ethnic minority families [5], and it is of concern because it often cuts into physical activity time. Guidelines are no screen time for young toddlers (< 2 years) and ≤ 1 hour for toddlers > 2 years of age [2, 4]. Sleep patterns consolidate during toddlerhood as toddlers sleep through the night with a mid-day nap and shift from cribs to beds. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that toddlers receive 11–14 h of sleep daily with bedtime before 9:00 PM [2]. Toddlers who receive less than the  recommended amount of sleep are at increased risk for excess weight gain, emotional dysregulation, impaired growth, injuries, and lower academic achievement [6]. In addition, shortened nighttime sleep increases the likelihood of next-day sedentary  behavior [7]. With the exception of sleeping, toddlers should not be sedentary or inactive for more than 1 h at a time [4].

Learning occurs through play as toddlers explore by touching and trying to figure out how things work. Toddlers’ cognitive skills increase from  piling blocks to building structures. By age 2, toddlers can solve simple puzzles, such as putting a round piece in a round hole. Parents can promote toddlers’ learning by playing with them and providing basic play materials,  including homemade and common household items. Make-believe play  is an important part of toddlers’ development: they imitate what they see, such as pretending to cook or eat. Toddlers’ language skills progress from single-word approximations to two- and three-word phrases. By age 3, most toddlers can speak in short sentences clearly enough for non-family members to understand them. Parents can promote their children’s language and cognitive skills by reading with them daily, beginning with simple picture books. Engaging toddlers by having them point to pictures in books and talk about stories lets them be active participants and learn to love reading. As toddlers transition to the family diet, they learn to self-feed, first with fingers and then with utensils. Self-feeding is often messy but it helps toddlers regulate their intake and develop a sense of independence. Neophobia (i.e., hesitancy to try new foods) and pickiness (i.e., food selectiveness) are common examples of toddlers’ drive for autonomy and are, in most cases, transitional. Children’s willingness to eat is facilitated by daily routines, including predictable times for meals, naps, play, and bedtime, along with responsive feeding. Responsive feeding includes parents’ serving and eating healthy food and snacks, recognizing and responding  to toddlers’ signals of hunger and satiety, avoiding pressuring toddlers, and involving toddlers in food preparation.

Toddlerhood is a transitional period for both children and parents. Toddlerhood can be both joyful and  challenging as children acquire new skills and assert their independence through their propensity to say “No” and “I do it myself.” Effective parents provide age-appropriate settings and opportunities for their toddler, read their toddler’s cues, and respond in a manner that is prompt, appropriate, and nurturant, although not necessarily conciliatory. Responsive parenting ensures that toddlers receive the guidance and nurturant care that they need to develop their physical and emotional well-being.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Developmental milestones. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/index.html.
2.  American Academy of Pediatrics. Toddlers. https://www.healthychildren.org/Englishages-stages/toddler/Pages/default.aspx.
3.  United States Department of Agriculture. National Agricultural Library, Toddler 
Nutrition. https://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/toddler-nutrition.
4.  Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology. Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for the Early Years (0–4 years): An Integration of Physical Activity, Sedentary Behaviour and Sleep. https://csepguidelines.ca/early-years-0-4/.
5.  Duch H, Fisher EM, Ensari I, Harrington A. Screen time use in children under 3 years
old: a systematic review of correlates. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2013 Aug 23;10:102.
6.  Chaput JP, Gray CE, Poitras VJ, Carson V, Gruber R, Birken CS, et al. Systematic review of the relationships between sleep duration and health indicators in the early years (0–4 years). BMC Public Health. 2017 Nov;17 (Suppl 5):855.
7.  Armstrong B, Covington LB, Unick GJ, Black MM. Bidirectional effects of sleep and sedentary behavior among toddlers: a dynamic multilevel modeling approach. 
J Pediatr Psychol. 2019 Apr;44(3):275–285.