Inside your toddler's amazing brain: milestones to watch out for

Brain Development in Children: Inside your toddler's brain

What are some milestones parents can look forward to experiencing with their toddlers? Find out from Mommy Dedet Reyes-Panabi.

13 min read

Go to the Toddler Chat of any parenting forum, and you’ll be sure to see many emotional threads from tired and confused to very stressed out parents. Their problems often revolve around these themes: tantrums, bedtime battles, picky eaters, and a number of questions that start with “My child won’t…”

Yup, we have entered the Age of the Terrible Threes. Don’t get me wrong: we love our kids, we just don’t understand them, nor know how to completely deal with them. They’re no longer cute and cuddly babies who smile at everything we do. They’re now Little People, with their own personalities and preferences, and a talent for knowing exactly how to drive us crazy. 

One moment, they’re clingy and refuse to let us out of their sight; the next moment, they’re screaming “No!” while glaring/kicking/flailing on the floor. They constantly surprise us with what they know and learn, but also conveniently forget to brush their teeth or put away their toys. They’re passionate rebels, but they’re also very sincere and loving and kind. Just when we think we can’t take anymore, they hug us and say, “I love you sooooo much.”

But let’s put this chaos in a positive light: the toddler years are overwhelming because they bring a huge developmental spurt – physically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially. While kids develop at their own unique pace – so it’s impossible to box them into a list of what they can and can’t do –there are milestones that can help us understand what’s going on in their little minds. (And, if we know what they’re going through, we can then figure out how to support them – and maybe not take their outbursts personally.)

Cognitive Development

Your child’s brain is a powerful and amazing machine that starts making connections even at birth! At this age, he’s making the first steps to understanding concepts: the idea of same and different, comparing sizes, sorting objects by shape and color, completing simple puzzles, and remembering stories and songs.  

You’ll also start seeing different kinds of intelligence. Some kids have an instinct for understanding numbers, while others retain words or pictures better. One of our roles, as parents, is to work with his learning style. 

Let’s take the example of teaching a child how to read.  A visual learner needs a lot of pictures and videos, and will probably like books that have beautiful art work. A physical learner will enjoy touch-and-feel or lift-the-flap books, and can memorize the alphabet if you use craft activities with clay or magnetic letters. 

While all children will learn at their own pace, they can learn faster if you understand how their brain works.

Language Development

A typical three to four-year-old can speak in simple sentences of five to six words, which can relay what he wants or thinks. However, his vocabulary may be limited, and he may be frustrated when adults don’t understand what he’s trying to say. He’s even less able to communicate that frustration, because feelings are hard to explain – even adults struggle with that!

Develop vocabulary by echoing what you think he wants to say. Describe the situation and decipher cries and tantrums. “Are you upset because you’re hungry? Do you want a snack?” or, “You’re upset that you can’t open that jar. Do you want Mommy to help you open it?” He learns words, and realizes that cries aren’t the only way to communicate to the world. Don’t use baby talk, or silently swoop in and fix the problem. Teach him how to articulate needs and preferences.

You should also watch out for language delays. By this age, your child is already in playschool, and his social interaction with peers and teachers can help you see how he communicates with others. If he’s not talking, avoids eye contact, or seems stressed out by conversations, raise your concerns with the teacher. He or she can observe your child in different settings, and then recommend further consultation with a developmental pediatrician. Speech delays and social anxiety are best addressed at an early age, so don’t be afraid of speaking up in behalf of your child.

Physical Development 

At this age, your child should be better at climbing and running, start developing fine motor skills (like using scissors and holding a crayon), and finetune hand-eye coordination (like throwing a ball into a hoop). 

While not all children are athletically inclined, all children need at least two hours of active play a day. Sedentary kids who spend the whole day sitting down or looking at a tablet or phone can be at higher risk for obesity. Plus, your child also needs to form important mind-body awareness, which comes from constant movement and using different body parts.

This is a good time to encourage dancing, sports and martial arts – aside from the physical activity, these develop discipline and get them off the couch! A child who grows up getting used to using and moving their bodies will seek exercise when they’re older, and that’s a habit that will help them stay healthy throughout their lives.

Social Skills 

Your child is now able to make connections with people outside of their family circle: classmates, teachers, coaches, the yayas who hang out in their school, and more. 

The social interaction develops their language skills (because they’re now forced to interact and explain what they want) and reinforces the idea that they can trust others. It’s important to expose them to positive relationships and influences, and help them get used to larger groups. That’s why all those kindergartens have programs: it’s not just to entertain parents and provide lots of photo ops, but also to build a child’s confidence in front of a crowd.

Some kids are shyer than others, in which case, it’s the parents’ cue to help them make baby steps. Organize small play groups, and let them hang out with classmates after school instead of bringing them home right away. Don’t pressure your child to become friendly; instead, make it easier for him to make friends.


As your child starts exploring, it becomes more important for him to feel safe and trust the environment around him. Anxious children are more clingy and grow up to be more fearful of risks and mistakes. At this sensitive age, we need to make him feel that he can step out of his comfort zone knowing that he will be okay.

That’s why rules and routines are so important. These create a daily and consistent structure that makes the world less overwhelming. The idea is to create a rhythm that is flexible but still familiar. For example, they know that they have merienda and then playtime and then a nap, but they’re able to decide what to do during their playtime. Then, when it’s time to put their toys down, they get cues that help them transition to the next stage. “In five minutes, we need to put the toys away. You will hear music that says play time is over, and pack up by the time the song is finished.” They’re able to exercise their freedom, but they can also rely on the structure set by trusted adults.

Emotional Awareness

Toddlers and preschoolers are pretty self-absorbed: at this age, they still think the world revolves around what they want and feel. However, they have trouble explaining this storm of emotions. They need an emotional vocabulary, and a healthy way of expressing their frustration. In other words, they don’t need to throw a tantrum to be understood.

Teach words for feelings: sad, happy, frustrated, bored, sleepy, tired, hungry, angry. Some educational shows will show familiar characters going through relatable situations, like losing a favourite toy or fighting with a sibling. Seeing what others go through (and being sympathetic towards those characters) will help them understand their own feelings, too.

Give timeouts when your child throws a tantrum, usually as long as one minute per age of the child (ex: three minutes for a three year old). Don’t treat it as a punishment, but as a way for him to calm down. “I can’t understand you when you’re screaming. Sit down and let’s talk later, when you feel better.” By the way, this is a good way for you to calm down, too!

And most of all, acknowledge emotions. Don’t get mad at a child for being mad, or laugh when he’s upset. Even at this early age, you’re already sending important signals to him about how to handle stress, conflict, and frustration. He needs to know that he can tell someone about how he feels, and that it’s not bad to be sad! 

What you should teach is positive ways of managing emotions. “It’s okay to be mad, but you can’t hit people or throw your toys. Let me hug you while you calm down.” “I know you’re bored, but we can’t go home yet. Do you want to read a book or color?”

Note to Parents: Don’t Feel Judged

When my son was a rather difficult toddler, I often felt his tantrums were proof of my failure as a parent. Why couldn’t I understand him? Why couldn’t I make him behave? I felt the disapproval of family members or even strangers at a restaurant or airport. “Why are you letting your child act this way?”

It was liberating to know that his behavior was part of normal development, and it was unfair to him or to me to expect a three-year-old to act like an adult. This little kid was going through momentous changes that affected everything from his mind to his body and his emotions, and he was doing the best he could. So was I. 

That’s when I realized parenting was a journey, and childhood was an adventure, and we were both growing and learning together. While certain milestones helped me understand what was going on in his brain, I ultimately had to understand the universal truth of parenting: your child needs to go through what he needs to go through, and you’re lucky to be part of it. It’s not easy to be a parent, but it’s a privilege to see your child discover himself, and grow up from that “challenging” toddler into a unique and amazing human being who understands the world, and who he is.


About The Writer


Dedet Reyes-Panabi

Dedet Reyes-Panabi was editor-in-chief of a parenting magazine for over 10 years, but has been writing for newspapers and magazines much longer than that (hint: back then, people still used film for photo shoots!). Today, she is a content marketing consultant for both local and international companies. She is full-time mom to two kids, three cats, and a stubborn French bulldog.


The views and opinions expressed by the writer are his/her own, and does not state or reflect those of Wyeth Nutrition and its principals.

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