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From Baby to Big Kid

An e-newsletter that showcases how children learn and grow each month from birth to 3 years. From Baby to Big Kid translates the science of early childhood and offers strategies parents can tailor to their unique family situation and to the needs of their child.
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From Baby to Big Kid: Month 15

What to Expect From Your Toddler's Development

As you read the chart below, keep in mind that development is not a race and that every child grows at her own pace and in her own way.  Your child may develop skills faster or slower than indicated below and still be on track.  If you have questions or concerns, talk with your child’s health care provider or other trusted professional.

Your Toddler’s Development From 15 to 18 Months

What Your Toddler Can Do

What You Can Do to Connect With
Your Toddler

I’m using my body to explore and learn. 

  • I may be walking, running, and even climbing. 
  • I can scribble with a crayon and build a block tower.
  • I can feed myself.

Provide chances to explore outdoors in safe places.  Your child will love to discover new things, like sticks, rocks, and leaves, and show them to you.

Encourage your child to use his fingers and hands to explore. Let him scribble, tap a toy piano, or hold a bubble wand. 

Show your child how to use a spoon and fork, if you want him to feed himself.

I’m using language to understand the world around me.

  • I can understand simple questions and directions like, Throw the ball to me.
  • I communicate by combining sounds and actions, like pointing to a cup and saying “wawa” for water.
  • By 18 months, I might say as many as 20 words. 

Ask your child questions:  Would you like yogurt or a banana for snack?    

Put her actions into words:  You’re pointing at the bird flying in the sky.

Read, sing, and make up rhymes and stories.  This builds a love of language and words. 

Limit TV watching. Children learn much more from exploring their real world. 

I’m beginning to understand how my actions affect other people.

  • I may try to comfort someone who seems sad.
  • My feelings can be hard to handle.  I may start having tantrums and will need your help to calm down.

Read books that talk about feelings.  Connect what you are reading to your child’s experiences. The child in the story doesn’t like saying bye-bye to his daddy either.

Stay calm during tantrums.  This helps your child recover more quickly.

Use feeling words (happy, proud, angry, sad, etc.) to help your child understand what he or another person is feeling, and why.  

I’m becoming a good problem-solver.

  • I may do something over and over to figure out how it works.
  • I use objects the way they are supposed to be used—like talking on a toy telephone. 
  • I imitate what I see others do—like try to brush my teeth.

Let your child repeat the same activity.  It may be boring to you but is important practice for him.

Once your child has learned a new skill, like throwing the ball, add a twist:  Bounce the ball to him. Or, set up a laundry basket for him to toss the ball into. 

I may get clingy and act like a baby sometimes.

  • Now that I can walk and even run, I might sometimes get a little afraid of being so independent!

Be a “safe base” for your toddler.  Assure her you will still be there for her even as she explores.

Provide comfort and reassurance when needed. Allow your toddler to act like a baby sometimes. This makes it more likely that she’ll get through this stage quicker.

What It’s Like for You

Steve, father of Nicola, age 15 months, remembers the terror and panic:  

I took Nicola with me into the department store to get my wife a Mother’s Day gift.  She was fussing in the stroller, so I took her out and she was standing right next to me.  I swear, I looked away for 10 seconds to check the size of a shirt and when I looked down—she was gone.  I can’t describe how that felt.  I started yelling her name, but nothing.  Then I hear a peep coming from under the rack and there she was with this huge smile on her face.  There are no words to describe how relieved I felt.

For active toddlers there is nothing more fun than exploring the world on their own two feet.  Unfortunately, that means—at least right now—that you need to stay very alert.  Since your child has not yet developed self-control, he can’t stop himself from dashing away, even if you say no.  You’re the first line of defense for keeping him safe.  This can be tiring, so it might make sense to limit trips to crowded stores for a little while, or just plan on sticking close and following your child’s explorations, rather than getting much done.  Another idea is to make the stroller fun again for your child (who probably has no interest in sitting in it) by allowing him to push it himself.  He may not push in a straight line, but at least you know where he is!

What It’s Like for Baby

One of my favorite times with Mommy is when we read books together. It feels so cozy and warm to snuggle up with her.  My favorite part is when Mommy shows me a few books and then lets me pick which one I want.  She probably wonders why I pick the same book day after day.  But it makes me feel so smart when I know what the book is about and can recognize the pictures.  I love seeing kids doing things I do, like playing in the sandbox, or pictures of things I see where I live—like the doggies playing in the yard.   I always point at the cover and say, dog!  And I always point to the right picture when Mommy asks me, Where’s the boy on this page?  When we get to the page where the boy is bouncing a ball, she shows me how to bounce a ball.  She always claps for me when I try.  What’s great is that Mommy doesn’t sweat it when I keep turning back to my favorite page, or if I just flip through the book in 10 seconds flat!  She just laughs and says that there are a lot of ways to have fun with books.   

What Your Baby Is Learning

Social-Emotional Skills:

  • That relationships with the special adults in her life are loving, supportive and fun
  • That she is capable and competent as her mother applauds her efforts and lets her explore the book as she chooses

Language and Thinking Skills:

  • How to make a connection between what is happening in the book (bouncing the ball) and what she can do in his “real life”
  • To answer her mother’s question about the illustrations
  • New words, like “bounce”
  • How to communicate a desire or interest (for example, by choosing the same book over and over, or by turning to a favorite page)
  • To anticipate the pictures and stories in her favorite books

Physical Skills:

  • Fine motor skills in the hands and fingers (by  page-turning)
  • Muscle coordination, by trying to bounce the ball

Did You Know…

That starting to walk can change the way children play?  A small study looked at toddlers before and after they were able to walk.  Researchers found that brand-new walkers had a shorter attention span and seemed to be less interested in sticking with their play, as compared to their pre-walking behavior.  However, this step back didn’t last long.  Once children mastered walking, their play skills actually improved—with children showing increased persistence and attention to play after they had mastered walking.

Reference:  University of Haifa (2007, May 30).  Interest in play tends to decrease as child begins to walk.  ScienceDaily.  Retrieved May 18, 2008, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070529212954.htm

What the Research Means for You

When children are in the process of learning a new skill—like walking—you often see changes in their behavior.  It is common for them to go back to more “baby-like” behaviors temporarily while they focus on one particular area of development.  These steps back usually don’t last for long…only until your child has “got” whatever new skill he is working on.  And in fact, children will usually move on more quickly if the adults who care for them go with the flow and don’t force them to act like “big kids.”  For example, if your child gets more clingy as he’s learning to walk, give him big hugs, tell him how much you love him, and then get him involved in an activity he enjoys.  Most likely, he’ll give up those behaviors once he’s mastered whatever skill he’s working on.  You may even find that your child becomes more persistent and involved in his play after walking due, in part, to his new ability to use his body to reach his goals.

Spotlight on: Your Toddler’s Growing Thinking Skills

Toddlers are little scientists. They are eager to figure out how everything works. They do this through “experiments.”  They might throw a ball to the ground and see that it bounces, then throw a doll to see what happens.  They also learn to use objects as tools—for example, using a stick to try to get a toy that is out of reach.  And their growing memory takes on an important role in helping them learn.  For example, they imitate what they see others do, even hours or days later.  So watch your toddler hold a cell phone up to her ear and have a chat, grab your briefcase and put on your shoes, or even pick up the newspaper and “read” it just like she’s seen you do.

The following are two important ways you can support your growing toddlers’ thinking skills:

Create lots of chances for your toddler to “test out” the new ideas and concepts she is learning.  Your child will begin using her new physical skills, strength, and coordination to conduct “experiments” to test out the new ideas and concepts she is learning.  She may stack blocks up in a teetery tower just to see how high it can get before she knocks it down.  Or, she may practice pouring and filling in the bathtub, which requires a steady hand and lots of hand-eye coordination.  She might even test out cause and effect by unrolling the toilet paper roll as far as it will go.

You can see how all areas of development are connected when you see your toddler use their physical skills to explore and learn. They dump and fill, pull and push, move things around, throw and gather items, and much more.  Your child’s new physical skills give her the ability to test out her new ideas.  So, if she carefully pours water out of her sippy cup onto the floor, it is not meant to be naughty, it’s an experiment to see:  What will happen if I do this?   Then you can teach her how to clean up with paper towels!

What you can do to nurture your little scientist:

  • Follow your child’s lead.  If your child loves to be active, she will learn about fast and slow, up and down, and over and under as she plays on the playground. If she prefers to explore with her hands, she will learn the same concepts and skills as she builds with blocks or puzzles.
  • Offer your toddler lots of tools for experimenting—toys and objects she can shake, bang, open and close, or take apart in some way to see how they work. Explore with water while taking a bath; fill and dump sand, toys, blocks.  Take walks and look for new objects to explore—pine cones, acorns, rocks, and leaves.   At the supermarket, talk about what items are hard, soft, big, small, etc.

Help your toddler become a good problem-solver.  Toddlers can use their thinking and physical skills to solve problems.  They do this by creating and acting on a plan to reach a goal.  For example, if they see a toy out of reach, they might climb on a child-safe stool to get it.  Or, they might take your hand, walk you to the shelf, and point to what they want.  Your toddler is learning to solve problems when he:

  • Tries to flush the toilet
  • Explores drawers and cabinets
  • Stacks and knocks down blocks
  • Pushes buttons on the television remote control or home computer
  • Pokes, drops, pushes, pulls, and squeezes objects to see what will happen

Being goal-oriented also means that toddlers are much less distractible than they may have been earlier.  While at 9 months they may have happily turned away from the stereo if shown an interesting rattle, now most toddlers will glance at the rattle and then turn right back to the stereo.  Time to do another round of child-proofing!   When you create a playspace that your child can explore safely, you avoid a lot of “no’s” and power struggles.  This gives your child the chance to play freely, which helps him learn. 

What you can do to raise a problem-solver:

  • Provide the support your child needs to solve a problem but don’t do it for him.  If he’s trying to make a sandcastle but the sand won’t stick, show him how to add water but don’t immediately make the castle for him.  The more he does, the more he learns.  This builds thinking skills and self-confidence.
  • Encourage your child to take on some self-care activities—combing hair, brushing teeth, or washing his face.  This helps him learn how familiar objects work and solve problems like how to hold the brush.
  • Give your child the chance to help around the house.  He can wipe down the counter with a towel or sponge, push a broom or mop, or rake leaves. These activities give your toddler many chances to solve problems such as how to clean up messes or clean up the yard.  They also help your toddler feel helpful, which builds his self-esteem and self-confidence.

Let’s Play: Activities that nurture bonding and learning

A Tisket, a Tasket, Fill Up the Basket.  Cut out about five to seven squares from colored paper.  Line these up on the floor in a path.  Put a small toy on top of each square.  Then hand your toddler a basket and show him how he can follow the path and gather the toys to put in his basket.   Games like this build physical skills and coordination as your child walks the path. 

A Moment in the Spotlight.  Let your child have some fun with a flashlight.  Show her how it works, then let her flash it on the ceiling, floor, and walls.  If she doesn’t mind, you can dim the lights so she can better see the contrast of the light on the walls.  You can take turns “chasing” the spotlight as one of your moves the flashlight along a wall.  This game builds thinking skills and hand-eye coordination.

What’s on Your Mind?

My 15-month-old never stops moving. He won't sit for longer than a minute or two to play with a toy or read a book. He just wants to be on the go.  I am concerned about whether a child this young can have ADHD. How can I find out?

It certainly sounds like you have a very busy, active toddler.  And in this day and age, when many parents are hearing so much and are concerned about ADHD—Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder—I can understand why you might wonder about your own child.  However, from your description, it sounds like your son is healthy and thriving, and that his attention span is right in line with other 15-month-olds, (the average attention span for this age group being less than 2 minutes).

ADHD is generally not diagnosed in children under 5 or 6 because being highly active is well within the range of normal behavior for young children. In fact, all the scientific literature on ADHD describes the disorder as “inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that are inappropriate for age.”  In children younger than 3-5 years of age, the diagnosis is usually reserved for children with severe impulsivity that is putting them in physical danger (such as running into the street).  In addition, for the diagnosis to be made, the child’s symptoms must be interfering in his functioning in more than one setting (such as home and school).

Your son sounds like a very curious little guy who is eager to learn.  There is nothing better for a toddler than being hungry to explore. In addition, it is important to consider the influence of temperament—your child’s individual way of approaching the world. Your son’s activity level is not necessarily an indication of a problem; it is just his preferred way of interacting and exploring.  He feels good when he is on the move.

If, as your child becomes a preschooler (3 or 4), his activity level gets in the way of his interacting and connecting with others, or his ability to learn (because he is moving so fast he doesn’t have time to take in any information or learn to problem-solve), I would recommend that you talk with your child’s health care provider or other trusted child development professional. 

While your son’s behavior sounds quite typical, there are things you can do to help him get the physical activity he needs while also helping him learn to slow down (and give you a well-deserved break. Indeed, parents of very active children are often exhausted but also in good shape!).

  • Establish routines so that his world is predictable and he knows what to expect. This will help him slow down and prepare for what’s coming next.
  • Make sure that he is getting enough sleep since children tend to be more active and distracted when they are overtired. (While there is a wide range for how much sleep children this age need, the average is about 13 hours at night.  Naps are still important at this age, too.)
  • Offer lots of opportunities for safe, active play. 
  • Engage your child’s help in everyday activities.  Ask him to put the spoons on the table or have him help you pick up leaves in the yard.
  • Give your toddler time to wind down.  Start limiting active play at least an hour before bedtime and perhaps 30 minutes before nap time.  Engage in quiet, soothing activities.
  • Make quieter activities rewarding for him—such as snuggling together while looking at a book.

Remember, active children aren’t wild or out of control, they just need to move.

I have a 15-month-old. Whenever he falls down or starts to cry because he wants to be picked up, my husband won't pick him up or comfort him because he says it will make him a "mama's boy." I disagree. As a result, our son prefers being with me (which seems to support my husband's theory!)  Is it true that answering my son's cries quickly or comforting him when he falls will make him "soft"?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for most parenting challenges, including the dilemma you’ve written about. Deciding how best to comfort a child who is upset requires that parents openly talk about their thoughts and feelings, and what their goals are for their child. Then they need to come to some agreement that respects where their child is developmentally and also takes into account both partners' perspectives.  

At 15 months, your son is still developing the ability to manage his emotions.  (In fact, this is a skill that takes many years to develop.)  The way he learns to cope with strong feelings—like fear or anger—is by looking to you for help.  When he is scared or hurt and you comfort him, he learns how to calm himself down.  When he is angry, he learns how to manage his frustration when you show him how, such as by giving him the words for his feelings or showing him how he can stamp his feet when he is mad. Developmentally, he is too young to be left alone to figure these things out.  He still needs your help with comforting, soothing, and dealing with strong feelings. 

Your husband’s concern that comforting your son will interfere in his learning how to be independent and handle challenges is not uncommon.  This belief often comes from the messages people received from their families as they were growing up. And of course, it may also be a result of a person's ideas about gender—that for a boy to be "tough," he shouldn't cry or need help when upset.  The truth is that if you don’t offer your son comfort and support when he needs it, he may grow to feel insecure and less trusting of you, which in the end might actually make him less confident and able to handle challenges. 

The following approach would respect both your and your husband’s point of view and concerns, and be helpful to your son. The first step is to validate his experience: You are mad that Johnny took your ball. Or, It hurts when you fall down. Next, provide him with the support and comfort he needs to feel safe and secure again. Once he has calmed down, he can focus his energy on the very important step of figuring out how to solve the problem.

Here's how it might look in "real-life." Your son falls down and bumps his knee as he's playing a chasing game with you. He starts to cry. You or your husband say something like, Uh oh! You fell down. (Use a loving, but matter-of-fact voice, not one that is overly concerned or panicky since kids pick up on their parents' cues about how to feel in different situations.) Then you provide some physical comfort, perhaps a hug, or a gentle touch to his knee, and encourage him to play again, letting him know you think he can do it. By combining your approaches, you and your husband can team up in this extreme sport known as parenting.



Newsletter Authors:
Rebecca Parlakian, Senior Parenting Resources Writer and
Claire Lerner, LCSW, Director of Parenting Resources, ZERO TO THREE

Expert Reviewers:
Terrie Rose, PhD, President and Founder, Baby’s Space
Ross Thompson, PhD, Professor of Psychology, University of California at Davis
Robert Weigand, MS, IMH-E, Director, Child Development Laboratory,
Arizona State University

This ZERO TO THREE newsletter series was made possible by generous funding from MetLife Logo .

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