Your child’s development, step by step

Children grow by leaps and bounds in their first few years of life. As they evolve from baby to toddler, you play an important role in their development.


Global development

Babies learn fast. In no time they can smile and roll over, walk and talk, draw, and even make friends. As they grow, they pick up all sorts of abilities in different areas.

By Nathalie Vallerand

Babies learn fast. In no time they can smile and roll over, walk and talk, draw, and even make friends. As they grow, they pick up all sorts of abilities in different areas.

Their motor, cognitive, social, and emotional skills begin to develop as soon as they’re born. Like pieces of a puzzle, these four major areas come together to form a whole known as “global development.”

For healthy development, a child’s physical needs (e.g., food, sleep, safety) and emotional needs must be met. “Children need to feel loved and cherished by their parents. When they’re upset, they need to be comforted. These emotional building blocks allow them to develop self-confidence and self-esteem, which helps them learn,” says Caroline Roussel, a psychoeducator for the early stimulation programs at the CIUSSS du Nord-de-l’Île-de-Montréal.

A stimulating environment is also key. “For their brains to activate, children need to explore their surroundings, interact with other kids, go outside, play, and try new things,” says Miriam Beauchamp, director of the ABCs Developmental Neuropsychology Lab at the University of Montreal and a researcher at the CHU Sainte-Justine Research Center.

Each at their own pace

No two kids are alike. One might start walking at 10 months, and another at 15 months. Some might say their first words before taking their first steps, while others do the opposite. A good rule of thumb is to not compare your child to others.

All children develop at their own pace, depending on their genetic makeup, personality, and preferences,” says Beauchamp. “Their level of stimulation is also an important influence. A child who receives a lot of language stimulation, for example, might start speaking earlier.”

It’s important to consider your child’s abilities when setting the bar. “When children feels pressured or unable to meet expectations, they can develop anxiety and believe that they’re not worthy of being loved,” explains Roussel. “They can withdraw or even regress.”

Four major areas

As the months pass, your child will begin to reach physical, cognitive, emotional, and social milestones.

As the months pass, your child will begin to reach physical, cognitive, emotional, and social milestones.

Children don’t always master the same skills at the same age, but they do go through the same developmental stages. “Children progress in a predictable sequence. They start simple, then move on to more complex tasks. Before taking their first steps, for instance, they learn how to creep, crawl, and stand upright,” explains Miriam Beauchamp, director of the ABCs Developmental Neuropsychology Lab.

Read on to learn about the four major areas of development.

Motor development

Motor development includes gross and fine motor skills.

Gross motor skills are big movements, like crawling, walking, running, and rolling over, that require the use of larger muscles. “My nine-month-old, Loïk, can stand upright while holding on to furniture,” says Emanuelle Roy-Paradis, who also has two other children named Caleb and Alicia with her partner, Cécilia Moreno-Rivera. “He bounces whenever he hears a song in Spanish, Cécilia’s native language. He can also take a few steps with the help of his walker toy.”

Early on, babies figure out how to use their neck muscles to turn, lift, and hold up their head. Eventually they learn how to roll over, sit up, creep, crawl, walk, go up stairs, climb, jump, run, balance on one foot, pedal, and more.

“As children grow, their balance, coordination, and agility improve,” says Beauchamp. “This allows them to master more difficult movements, like kicking a ball while running.”

Fine motor skills are more precise movements that use the small muscles of the hands and fingers. “Our son Émile is four and a half and can zip up his own coat,” say Sophie Lalancette and Charles Langlois, who also have a six-year-old son. “He’s very handy with scissors. Once, he even made himself a mask.” However, Émile still can’t tie his shoelaces, a skill that children generally acquire at age five or six.

Children learn more precise movements as they develop hand-eye coordination and the ability to use both hands independently. For example, they can pick up different objects, give high-fives, point, flip the pages of a book, thread beads, hold a pencil, and unscrew a lid.

Cognitive development

From birth, babies are already developing cognitive abilities such as thinking, memory, attention, reasoning, and planning. These skills allow them to learn, solve problems, exercise judgment, and understand their surroundings. Language is also an important part of a child’s cognitive development.

During their first year, babies discover the notion of cause and effect through their random actions. “For example, your baby might shake a noisy rattle and realize that this action is causing a reaction,” explains Beauchamp. “Your child will shake the rattle again to recreate that noise. It’s the beginning of reasoning.” After age one, babies start to develop object permanence, the understanding that objects and people continue to exist even when they can’t be seen.

In terms of language acquisition, babies start by cooing (vowel sounds like “ahhh” and “ohhh”), then transition to babbling (syllables like “ba ba ba” and “pa pa pa”). By 12 to 16 months, they understand that words have meaning and start to speak.

Symbolic thinking develops between 18 months and three years. At this stage, children are able to represent objects and people in their minds. They can do puzzles and solve other small problems. They also start to play make-believe. Emanuelle and Cécilia’s three-year-old daughter Alicia loves this game. “She often pretends that she’s cooking or fixing things. She also loves dinosaurs and has an imaginary dinosaur friend who sleeps in the basement.”

Between ages three and five, children’s creativity and reasoning abilities improve drastically. For example, they can use logical reasoning to understand that a smaller box contains less than a bigger box. “I’m pregnant, and my partner has nicknamed me Mama Whale,” says Alexandra Loembe, mother of three-year-old Noah. “The other day, my son made a very logical connection and called his dad Papa Whale. We had a good laugh!”

Noah is also starting to grasp rules. “I taught Noah about traffic signals and told him to always wait for the green light before crossing the street,” says his father, William Longmene. “Now, he’s the one who reminds me to wait for the light to change!”

A four- or five-year-old can carry on a conversation, even if they make mistakes. “People understand Émile when he speaks,” says Sophie. “But he still mixes up time-related words, like ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow.’”

Emotional development

According to Beauchamp, emotional development is essential for children to learn how to express themselves, recognize and control their emotions, and decipher the emotions of others. “This is the foundation on which all future relationships are built,” she says.

Your baby’s emotional development begins with the bond you share. It is through the parent-child relationship that babies develop a sense of security and confidence.

During their first few months of life, they might be fearful of strangers. “Whenever Loïk meets someone new, he runs up to Cécilia and hides,” says Emanuelle. But this fear doesn’t last. Thanks to the emotional security provided by their parents, children eventually open up to others. They develop a need to explore and be autonomous. Plus, they learn how to be empathetic, compassionate, resilient, and assertive.

Emotional development plays a central role in self-discovery, relationship building, self-confidence, and, eventually, academic success. That’s why it’s important for parents to interact with their children, allow them to make choices, and help them manage their emotions and understand the emotions of others.

Social development

For children to build relationships and live with others in society, their social development is key. They need social skills to make friends, get along with others, and be part of a team. “Most of our day-to-day activities require interacting with others,” points out Beauchamp.

“Family is the first place where children learn to socialize.” A child’s first interactions are the looks and smiles shared with his or her parents. Once children start spending time with other kids and adults, their social skills improve.

But they will not intuitively know how to share, wait their turn, be polite, lend a hand, collaborate, follow rules, make compromises, or resolve conflicts. These behaviours need to be learned. “When Noah’s friends come over to play, he still has trouble sharing certain toys,” says Alexandra. “But I’ve noticed that he’s better at sharing and cooperating when he’s with his friend Emma, who is a year older. For example, they take turns pushing each other when they play with his toy car.”

How to stimulate your child

Every day, you support your child’s development through countless tiny gestures.

Every day, you support your child’s development through countless tiny gestures.

Every moment you spend with your child is an opportunity for stimulation,” says Caroline Roussel, a psychoeducator for the early stimulation programs at the CIUSSS du Nord-de-l’Île-de-Montréal. “For example, when you dress your baby, you can point out and name items of clothing and body parts to promote language development.” These interactions also spark young children’s emotional and social development.

Something as simple as baking a cake with your child can have a profound impact. This type of activity stimulates every area of your child’s development: motor skills (when pouring and mixing ingredients), cognitive ability (when following the steps and focusing on the task), emotional development (as the child-parent bond deepens and your child’s confidence grows), and social development (when working with you to accomplish the task).

It’s never too early to stimulate your baby. As soon as they’re born, they’re ready to learn! “The brain is at the centre of learning and growth,” explains Miriam Beauchamp, director of the ABCs Developmental Neuropsychology Lab at the University of Montreal and a researcher at the CHU Sainte-Justine Research Center. “A baby’s brain develops most during the first years of life.”

Five winning attitudes to support your child’s development


For your little one, every moment is an opportunity to learn and discover. “When you take your child to the park, it’s a chance to be outside, run, climb, play in the sand, and have fun with other kids,” says Beauchamp. “There’s so much to see, do, and experience.” Encourage your child to observe his or her surroundings. Point out a passing dog, colourful flowers, a plane in the sky, or the silky grass.


Psychoeducator Caroline Roussel recommends that parents limit their child’s exposure to electronic screens as much as possible. “For a baby with so much to learn, devices can’t compare to real-life experiences such as interacting with others, touching objects, physically moving, and exploring the world with all five senses.”


Roussel also believes that children should be encouraged to take the reins and make decisions during playtime. “Follow them into their imaginary world. Not only will it be a fun bonding experience, but you’ll also boost their sense of autonomy, confidence, and creativity.”


While it’s good to congratulate children when they succeed, it’s equally important to praise their efforts. “Even if they can’t manage to put on their own pants, you can still commend them for trying,” says Roussel. “You’ll make them feel valued, and they’ll be eager to try again.”


There’s no point in trying to teach your child a skill that’s beyond his or her abilities. “Instead of pushing, offer support while letting your child develop at his or her own pace,” suggests Roussel. “You’ll both feel less pressured and have more fun.” For example, let your little one scribble instead of insisting that they draw shapes or letters that are too difficult.

How to identify delays

It’s normal for some children to develop more slowly than other kids their age. When should you be concerned?

It’s normal for some children to develop more slowly than other kids their age. When should you be concerned?

Caleb was only a few months old when his mother, Emanuelle Roy-Paradis, started to worry that something was wrong. “Whenever I put him on his stomach, he would lift his arms to avoid touching the ground. He would also cry for hours if he was exposed to certain stimuli, like loud noises. Everything bothered him, to the point where he avoided moving altogether. At 14 months, he still couldn’t sit up by himself.”

Caleb, who now sees a physiotherapist, has a slight motor delay, possibly caused by a sensory hypersensitivity. He took his first steps at 20 months. Now, at 21 months, he can even run. “He’s catching up,” his mother says happily.

What do we mean by “delay”?

When a child is significantly behind in reaching the developmental milestones expected by a certain age, this is called a delay. “For example, children have usually taken their first steps, or started the process that leads to walking, by 12 months,” explains Dr. Anne-Marie Goyette, a developmental pediatrician at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. “If a 16-month-old can stand and move around while holding on to furniture, I’m not concerned, because I know they’re on their way to walking. But a 17-month-old who can barely stand probably has a delay.”

“In terms of language, a 12-month-old who isn’t babbling (repeating syllables like “ba ba ba” or “ta ta ta”) almost certainly has a delay, because by then we expect babies to be saying their first words. But if the child is babbling and pointing to objects, there’s nothing to worry about.”

Children with a delay can catch up if they receive proper stimulation. But if they continue to lag behind, the delay may be a symptom of a broader condition that has not yet been diagnosed. “Children with a developmental disorder can definitely improve, but they will always have certain difficulties,” says Dr. Goyette.

Global developmental delay

A global developmental delay (GDD) occurs when a child is significantly behind in at least two of the following areas: gross or fine motor skills, cognitive functions, communication, personal and social development, and activities of daily living (autonomy).

This temporary diagnosis is limited to children aged five and under, except in rare cases. “We make this diagnosis while waiting for the child to become old enough for a full evaluation,” says Dr. Goyette. “For example, cognitive ability tests are not performed until about age four.”

Once children reach age five, their issue can be more clearly identified. A global developmental delay often signals a language disorder, an intellectual disability, an autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, or a combination of these. Sometimes, the child’s delay is the result of a genetic disorder or exposure to alcohol during pregnancy (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder).

Who can help?

If you’re concerned about your child’s development, the first step is to make an appointment with a physician or pediatrician. Depending on the situation, the doctor may run tests or redirect you to a CLSC, where your child can be assessed by a specialist (such as a speech-language pathologist, psychoeducator, or occupational therapist). If necessary, you may be referred to a university hospital or specialized child development clinic.

According to Dr. Goyette, there are many benefits to placing kids with a developmental delay in a daycare centre. “It boosts their autonomy, social development, language ability, and motor skills. A quality daycare centre can help children reach their full potential.”

Learn about all the major stages of child development (in French only):


Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, July–August 2019
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Solène Bourque, psychoeducator


Photos : (in order) GettyImages/Fatcamera, AleksandarGeorgiev, Maxim Morin, Maxim Morin, Maxim Morin, Maxim Morin, GettyImages/monkeybusinessimages, GettyImages/LSOphoto and Sladic, GettyImages/tomazl and damircudic