As your child approaches her first birthday, her cognitive skills are still very basic. In the second year of life, brain development is rapid, as she begins to interact more with the outside world. As she develops through childhood and into adulthood her cognitive skills will help her: process information, think, learn, read, write, remember, reason, create and focus.

Cognitive milestones                                                              

By his first birthday your child will likely enjoy playing peek-a-boo, finding a hidden toy and engage in simple activities such as throwing, bashing and shaking. He will look at simple objects when they are named and copy gestures such as waving “bye-bye”. He will enjoy putting things in a container and taking them out again. Hours of fun!                                                             

As she develops through childhood and into adulthood her cognitive skills will help her: process information, think, learn, read, write, remember, reason, create and focus.

12 - 18 months

During the early months of his second year, your child will start to pay more attention to what is going on around him, and begin to imitate. This along with an increasing understanding of the function of objects leads to pretend play: like playing with toy cars or animals.  He may develop an attachment to a favorite toy. Increasingly he will learn through trial and error. He should enjoy sitting with you, reading a book, and begin to interact with pointing, naming and imitating sounds. He may be able to follow simple instructions such as “bring the cup”. He will look for a hidden object if he saw you move it.

18 - 24 months

Around the 18-month mark, your child’s knowledge of objects, toys, animals and body parts will begin to explode. As his awareness improves, so do his pretend play skills. Symbolic play may emerge, for example: pretending to feed a doll. He may begin to enjoy creative play: scribbling with a crayon or playing with play dough. He will understand and follow an increasing number of commands.  His problem-solving skills will be developing fast and he may begin to enjoy simple puzzles or matching games. By his second birthday, he may be able to find a well-hidden toy, build a 4-block tower and sort shapes and colors. He will join in with rhymes, finish sentences in a book and start to follow two-step instructions. His attention span remains very short and he will flit from one toy to the next, leaving a trail of chaos behind!                                                                    

Please note

Children born prematurely will usually reach milestones based on their due date, rather than their birth date. All milestones have a broad range of ages at which they are achieved. If you would like further information the CDC has a good summary of all developmental milestones.

Helping your toddler develop cognitive skills

Toddlers learn best through play. They benefit from a calm, quiet environment and do not need to be constantly entertained. There’s no need for complex, expensive toys that play a fanfare, every-time she’s successful: simple toys complemented by parental praise and their own enjoyment is enough. Make sure toys are age-appropriate, clean and meet safety standards. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Provide a variety of toys: blocks, shape sorters, balls, stacking cups, push along toys, simple instruments or safe household items (like pots and pans). Play with her and model correct play, but also allow her time alone to explore and experiment. Don’t correct or interfere too much: she will learn more from when things don’t work, than when they do, and it’s OK for her to get frustrated. Make a game of hiding toys under a cloth and having her find them.
  • Encourage play with creative items: crayons and paper, bubbles, scrap materials, play-dough, sand and water (warm, cold and ice).
  • Explore with your child: go for a walk around the houses, to the park or shops, visit friends or take a special trip to the farm, zoo or aquarium. Point out names, colors, and sizes, as you explore.
  • Reading with your child is a great way to enhance their cognitive skills while sneaking in a quick cuddle! Sing action songs and help her do the actions.
  • Provide a safe environment: it’s time to seriously “baby proof” your home and car.
  • Avoid television and other screen time, if possible. There is evidence that screen-time can cause developmental delay.
  • Playdates, with other children of a similar age, can be fun; but don’t expect too much, they will play alongside each other (parallel play) and pass toys to each other, at best.
  • If your child is beginning to develop separation anxiety, a transitional object, such as a soft toy or blanket may be introduced.

When to call your doctor

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests developmental checks at 9 months, 18 months and 24 or 30 months. Children who were premature, low birth weight or have other health problems may be screened more frequently. If you are worried you can request an assessment at any time.

If you think your child is showing unusual signs don’t panic, there may be a very simple reason, every child is different. Signs to report to your doctor include:

  • Delay in reaching milestone of 3 months or more.
  • Slow progression of play skills or lack of imaginative play.
  • Unusual play: lack of emotion, lack of variety, unusual use of a toy or object (e.g. when playing with a car, prefers to spin wheels rather than push it)
  • Gets distressed by a change in environment.
  • Doesn’t follow simple instructions.
  • Lack of interest in adults or children: seems indifferent and doesn’t watch or mimic.
  • Loss of skills previously gained (regression).

It is recommended that you keep a record of your child’s development: if you are concerned it may help reassure you that your child is, in fact, progressing and if the need arises it will provide useful information for your doctor.