toddler girl playing with blocks

Developmental Milestones Birth to 5 Years

by Tawna Schmidt, EdD

Mom Life

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Developmental milestones are often referred to as developmental domains in the education world.

The moment a child is born, they begin the journey of learning through the exploration of their surroundings. By smelling, feeling, touching, listening, playing, and observing, they quickly move from one milestone (or domain) to the next.

According to, “The first five years of a child’s life are the foundation that shapes children’s future health, happiness, growth, development, and learning achievement at school, in the family and community, and in life in general.”

Children learn more, and more quickly, in their first five years than at any other time in their life.

Understanding each stage of child development helps parents be prepared so they know what to expect and when to reach out to their pediatrician if any concerns arise.

Cognitive Development

Cognitive development is the same as intellectual development. Simply put, it is the learning and processing of information.

Cognitive development references a child’s ability to think, learn, reason, and solve problems. It is also responsible for our memory and imagination.

An infant learning how to respond to facial expressions and a preschooler learning the difference in shapes are both examples of cognitive milestones.

When there is a breakdown in cognitive development, it is incredibly beneficial to catch it as soon as possible so potential learning delays do not go on for an extended amount of time before seeking help.

Activities you can do with your child to develop cognitive skills from a young age include:

  • blocks
  • puzzles
  • peg games
  • patterns
  • card games
  • memory games
  • cause and effect activities

Speech and Language Development

Speech and language development is learning how to express oneself through communicating with others.

The first part of this milestone is learning sounds, then words, and finally sentences to communicate thoughts to others.

Even when our babies can’t talk to us, it is important that we talk to them. This plays a significant role in the development of language and literacy skills years down the road.

Activities you can do with your child to develop speech and language skills from birth include:

  • Reading books to them
  • Talking to them
  • Singing to them

Social and Emotional Development

Learning to like ourselves and get along with others falls in the social and emotional development domain.

Examples include sharing, taking turns, accepting differences in others, and including everyone in play so no one is left out.

A large portion of how children learn social and emotional development is from watching others and copying what they see others do. Watching how others interact in their surroundings teaches them how they think they need or should act in similar situations.

This is the reason it is important that parents are aware of who they allow their children to be around, as well as how they personally act as a role model.

Identifying when a child is struggling with their social and emotional development is important to catch as quickly as possible. Signs may include the child being over-anxious, withdrawing from usual activities, or showing fearfulness. On the other hand, many children react opposite and display aggressive behavior, become intentionally disobedient, and destroy their toys or other items in their possession.

Activities you can do with your child to develop social and emotional skills from a young age include:

  • Playing games
  • Engaging them in conversations
  • Taking them out to eat
  • Creating ways for your child to interact with other children their age

Physical Development

Physical development falls into two categories: fine and gross motor skills.

Gross Motor Development

Gross motor development is the ability to control the larger muscles including the arms, legs, and torso.

Examples of gross motor skills include walking, running, kicking, lifting, and throwing a ball.

As children reach milestones of gross motor development, an infant starts crawling, or a toddler advances from walking to running. Three-year-olds reach a gross motor milestone when they develop body awareness or have the ability to successfully kick a ball.

Activities you can do with your child to develop gross motor skills from a young age include:

  • Working with them to walk up and down stairs
  • Walk on their heels and toes
  • Playing catch
  • Jumping over obstacles

Fine Motor Development

Fine motor skills are activities that use the fingers and the eyes together. These activities are important in our daily life for activities such as getting dressed, eating, using the toilet, and taking a bath.

As a child progresses through fine motor skill milestones, they are doing things such as reaching, grasping, turning the wrist, and releasing an object.

Activities you can do with your child to develop fine motor skills from a young age include:

  • Encouraging the child to try to dress/undress themselves
  • Zipping/unzipping a jacket
  • Coloring pictures
  • Drawing

Examples include being able to hold a crayon steady to draw an almost-straight line, buttoning a shirt, and holding a spoon to eat.

Why should developmental milestones be important to parents?

Developmental milestones are abilities your child should achieve at a certain age.

There is not an exact age a child will hit a milestone. However, when parents have a guide or checklist to follow they can watch for the milestones coming up and seek help if the child goes far past the general timeline.

Keeping your child on-track as much as possible can prevent future challenges where it is often difficult to make up lost time.

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