Your Child’s First Three Years and How to Navigate Them

Before I became a parent I had some pretty unrealistic expectations about what parenting would be like. I would see a mom struggling with an unruly toddler in the produce aisle and think to myself, “when I have kids, I will teach them how to behave in public.” Then reality hit and I wound up with two kids who are as different as Bob Ross and the Black Widow. The Bob Ross child was my textbook baby who met my expectations and was relatively easy to parent. The Black Widow child began writing her own textbook the minute she was born and shot all my expectations right out of the water!

The single most important thing to remember when going through all the stages of your child’s life, is that every child is wired to be their own unique person and the way you see them becomes the way they see themselves. Having appropriate expectations for each child and celebrating their unique strengths is the key to positive parenting. There is no right or wrong, better or worse temperament.

Temperament is not something your child chooses, and it is not something that you created. Your temperament matters too. You might love to meet new people and try new things, but your child doesn’t. Being aware of this difference helps you understand how your child’s needs may be different from yours. If your child is an introvert, multiple errands will cause her to melt down quicker. If your child is a sensory seeker, sitting still will be more difficult. If your child needs safety, sudden changes may set him off. If your child is an observer, don’t expect him to jump right in with a large group of children at the park.

Some expectations are easier to figure out then others. For instance, most parents know that it is not realistic to take an overly tired or hungry child on multiple errands and expect them to sit patiently without having a meltdown. If they are hungry and see myriads of yummy snacks at the grocery store, they are going to beg for every snack in sight! Tantrums are normal and to be expected in toddlers, but parents can plan ahead in an effort to calm the perfect storm before it erupts!

The following ages and stages are just a guide. As long as kids are moving through the stages, it doesn’t matter if they get there slower than other kids.

0-12 months


  • By 6 months your child should be sleeping through the night
  • Connecting thoughts and actions. Avoiding a diaper change, shows that memory is forming
  • They start to experiment with cause and effect relationships, like pushing buttons
  • They begin to use all their senses
  • They can sit without support, pull up, roll over and crawl
  • They begin to explore their environment
  • Most children learn to walk by 12 months

What you can do

  • Babyproof their environment
  • Follow their lead and let them explore
  • Provide stimulating toys and experiences for their senses
  • Know that your baby is too young for any kind of punishment. Your job is to model and re-direct.

Causes for concern at the end of one year:

  • Doesn’t crawl
  • Can’t stand when supported
  • Doesn’t search for things that she sees you hide
  • Doesn’t say single words like “mama” or “dada”
  • Doesn’t learn gestures like waving or shaking head
  • Doesn’t point to things
  • Loses skills he once had

1-2 years

Language Development

One of the biggest milestones of this stage is learning to talk. How and when your child does this is different for every child. Some children may talk sooner than others. Build your child’s vocabulary through reading books, repeating words and narrating what you are doing. Your child is learning language from you so talk to them often.

You can help him learn how to pronounce words by saying what you know he means: Say, “You want Daddy?”, rather than repeating “Dada”.

Also notice how your child uses her non-verbal actions to communicate. When a toddler takes your hand and leads you to a toy, she is telling you what she wants. When this happens spoken language skills will likely follow. You can help by repeating the message your child is sending: “You’d like me to play with you?”


Children learn how to solve problems by imitating what they see you doing. If they see Mommy staying calm or extending forgiveness, they are more likely to model that behavior. They will follow their curiosity to pull things down take things apart or throw things on the floor just to see what happens.

Other Milestones

  1. Starting to learn self-control.
  2. Can drink from a cup. Point to and identify body parts.
  3. Speaking in two-word sentences.
  4. Can follow instructions.
  5. Will become more interactive. Can play simple games like Peek a boo
  6. Will be more likely to play alongside other kids, rather than with them.
  7. They are impulsive and don’t understand motive or intention – they see, they do without thinking. For example, when they bite or grab toys from other kids, it is not intentionally to cause harm.
  8. Throw a ball, go up and down stairs, running, climbing
  9. Might seem bossy and selfish, but keep in mind that anything they are interested in or considers to be theirs will be seen as an extension of themselves. They are not developmentally able to share.
  10. They are developing a sense of self so they may begin saying ‘Mine!’ and ‘No!’
  11. Will often wake during the night.
  12. They may become more defiant as they start to experiment with their independence. As they become frustrated by their lack of words and their lack of ability to communicate their bigger emotions, they may throw more tantrums.

What You Can Do

  • Do chores together. Pushing a broom, for example, helps children solve problems like how to get the crumbs into the dustpan.
  • Teach your child to ask for help. When you see him getting frustrated as he tries to solve a problem, you might say: “It can be hard to stack blocks. Would you like some help?”
  • Use distraction to direct them away from what you don’t want them to be doing.
  • When you give them a new rule or direction, it’s likely that the old one will be forgotten. Their attention span is short.
  • Be positive and tell your child what you want them to do rather than what they shouldn’t be doing. Say, “Sit on the slide please,” versus, “Stop standing on the slide!”
  • Ignore the small stuff. Let learn to the important things first.
  • Help them put words to what they are feeling.

Causes for concern at the end of year two:

  • Doesn’t use 2-word phrases (for example, “drink milk”)
  • Doesn’t know what to do with common things, like a brush, phone, fork, spoon
  • Doesn’t copy actions and words
  • Doesn’t follow simple instructions
  • Doesn’t walk steadily
  • Loses skills she once had

3 Years Old

Toilet Training

Potty training is a huge milestone for three-year-olds, but it can also cause much stress, especially if there is a deadline like pre-school enrollment. There is not one “right” way to toilet train your child. Control over their bowels and bladders starts at 18 months but how emotionally ready a child is depends on the individual child.

Starting to train your child earlier does not necessarily mean she will learn to use the potty sooner. One study showed that children whose parents started training them before 27 months took longer to learn to use the potty compared to children whose parents started after 27 months.

Finding a toilet training method that works for your family is the key. No matter how you do it, remember that potty training takes time, with many accidents along the way.

Children with special needs or different types of anxiety may take longer to learn to use the potty.

Making Friends

Between 30 and 36 months, toddlers really enjoy playing with friends. Through friendships, children learn communication skills, how to work through disagreements, and understand the feelings and thoughts of others. Learning cooperation skills will help your child succeed in a classroom setting.

Even if your child is introverted, sibling relationships, bumpy as they may be, provide daily practice with sharing and cooperating. They also offer children opportunities to learn empathy and encouragement.

Other Milestones

  1. Starting to learn affection and empathy.
  2. Will experiment with independence.
  3. Will want increased control and may say the word “no” more often. May start to notice and be bothered by a change in routine. Will start to assert control over their environment by wanting to plan activities, do things by themselves, or try challenging things.
  4. Will flip between wanting to be independent and wanting to be coddled.
  5. Will become frustrated when disappointed.
  6. May see an increase in tantrums.
  7. Might stutter or stammer. Talking in two to three-word sentences.
  8. Might develop sudden fears and phobias causing new challenges at bedtime.
  9. May confuse real and make believe, so may have one or a collection of imaginary friends.
  10. Still won’t understand sharing their possessions or even their parent’s attention.

What You Can Do

  • Encourage social interaction at family gatherings. Organize playdates with friends or participate in community groups or events where your child can be around crowds.
  • Praise the positive.
  • Start to identify your feelings and the feelings of others.
  • Encourage problem solving in your child and suggest problem-solving strategies. You both want the swing. What can we do about this? Maybe you can take turns on the swing. While Samantha is swinging you can pretend to be an elevator. When she goes up the elevator goes up.
  • Use a positive parenting approach. Learn your child’s unique strengths and praise them often. Use the word “no” sparingly.
  • Encourage their exploration, by giving them freedom and space. Guide them, but don’t take away their initiative.
  • Don’t have too many rules and be consistent with ones that you have.
  • Encourage decision making but limit choices (‘Would you like to have a bath first or choose your pajamas first? Would you like to wear the red shirt or the yellow shirt today? Would you prefer corn or avocado with your dinner?’
  • Have bedtime rituals. Bedtime at this age can be exhausting for everyone. Have a ritual such as a soapy bath, a story, a head rub, or a forehead kiss.

Causes for concern at the end of year three:

  • Falls down a lot or has trouble with stairs
  • Drools or has very unclear speech
  • Can’t work simple toys (such as peg boards, simple puzzles, turning handle)
  • Doesn’t speak in sentences
  • Doesn’t understand simple instructions
  • Doesn’t play pretend or make-believe
  • Doesn’t want to play with other children or with toys
  • Doesn’t make eye contact
  • Loses skills he once had