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4 Major Toddler Milestones

Once my daughter Anna became a toddler, my husband and I found we had to adjust our expectations constantly. We would see our little girl trying to ride a trike, or put on her own shoes, or hold her own in a conversation, and wonder: Are we asking too much of her? Or not enough? Because Anna, like all young kids, changed so quickly, we found our answers to these questions changed nearly every day as well.

The developmental leaps and bounds that begin to occur at around 18 months are surprising, exciting  -- and sometimes a little unnerving. Even though you're bound to greet each accomplishment with fanfare, these new skills will present their own special challenges as you learn to adjust to them. One day, Anna would hold out her arms to have her shirt put on; the next, any help from me would mean a meltdown  -- and we'd have to start the process of getting dressed all over again. Says Mary Kate McTeigue, a mom of four, ages 3 to 11, in Great Barrington, MA: "You feel you have to reevaluate the whole parenting package."

Sound familiar? Here's a look at some of the major milestones of toddlerhood, and what you can do to get you and your child through them with more smiles than tears.


Milestone: Mastering Phrases

Sometime between 18 and 24 months, your child will combine gestures, isolated sounds, and words into simple sentences. You're thrilled, she's thrilled: Now you can have a conversation (of sorts). The downside: Her vocabulary will take a while to catch up to her comprehension.


"My son Peyton was 2 when he started talking," says Amy Miller, a mom in Wichita, KS. "Many nights, my husband and I would sit at the dinner table trying to figure out what Peyton wanted. He'd say the same thing over and over, and we'd just look at each other, shaking our heads." This usually left everyone in the family feeling frustrated and irritable, says Miller, who was relieved when Peyton's speech became clearer by the time he was 2 1/2.

Even if your child speaks clearly, you may still be confused by the various idiosyncrasies of language at this age. Many kids, for example, assign multiple meanings to words or phrases. Anna would call every adult "Mommy," a somewhat disheartening development from my point of view, and a confusing one at that. She'd ask for "Mommy's apple" when I wasn't even in the room, leaving my husband to wonder if the fruit in his hand somehow belonged to me.

At the same time, kids this age can be quite literal. "One little girl I knew had a terrible time after her mother had a miscarriage, because the mom kept saying she had 'lost' the baby," says Jerri Helmreich, director of the early childhood development center at Malone College, in Canton, OH. "It turned out the girl was afraid her mom was going to lose her."


Patience is essential. Even if you're in a rush, don't finish your toddler's sentences for her; doing so will only add to her frustration. And remember that she'll still resort to crying when she wants to communicate, but she's too tired, hungry, cranky, or overwhelmed to use words. "It may not mean 'I'm uncomfortable' or 'I'm hungry,' the way it did when she was a baby," says Eleonora Villegas-Reimers, a mother of a 3- and a 5-year old and an associate professor of human development at Wheelock College, in Boston. "It may just mean 'I want that ball and I can't reach it and I can't get anyone else to even understand me.' "

Give your child lots of opportunities to speak, especially if there are older kids in the house too. "A second or third child may be 3 years old before she really talks  -- since everybody in the house already knows what she needs before she asks," says Helmreich. And as your toddler becomes more verbal, make sure you model good speech rather than correct her pronunciation or her grammar. Children who are interrupted to be corrected can feel like giving up on the whole enterprise.

Milestone: Wanting to Do Things Himself

At around 18 months, Anna started to hold the dustpan for me while I swept, something that I both loved (when I had the time) and became irritated by (when I was in a hurry). Such are the mixed blessings of life with a 2-year-old, who has the coordination to accomplish much of what he wants and a will that can make him particularly insistent.


When Peyton turned into a toddler and wanted to do everything on his own, the switch was a big adjustment for Miller and her husband. "At first you think you're going to be putting on his shoes forever. Now it takes 10 minutes because he's saying, 'I do it! I do it!' You have to learn complete patience, and that can be really hard," she says.


Miller's solution for her impatience was to start allowing more time in her schedule for Peyton to do things himself. Still, it isn't easy, she says: "I have to remind myself that his independence is natural  -- that it's a good thing, not a bad thing."

McTeigue tries to make a habit of including her son as much as she can when doing her chores. "There's nothing like having him help to realize he really isn't in the way," she says. "And why not put his will to do things on his own and his desire to imitate to good use?"

Experts agree: Cultivate his independence. "Doing things for your child, or rescuing him from his mistakes, is a missed opportunity to help him learn. You want to build on his desire to be independent and give him ways to feel self-confident," says Claire Lerner, a mom of two and a child-development specialist with Zero to Three, a nonprofit organization that benefits infants, toddlers, and their families, in Washington, D.C.

At first, of course, letting your child use a fork or pull on his pants can strain your patience. But don't step in. "When your child gets frustrated, figure out how you can help him without saying, 'Mommy can do that for you,' " suggests Lerner. "Ask yourself, 'What can I do that will help him master this?' " And while it's hard to see him become frustrated by his efforts, this too is an important lesson, she says: "You want your child to learn persistence."

Milestone: Separating From Mom and Dad

Before 18 months, most babies don't see themselves as separate entities from their parents, especially their mothers. All of this changes quickly and obviously sometime in the second year: They begin to say no  -- all the time. "Kids this age need to confirm their sense of self and defend their dignity. Their best defense is 'No,' " says Villegas-Reimers.


Once your child starts to act on her contrary views, it will feel like you have only two choices: show her who's boss, or give in. You may know what to do when she refuses to get into her car seat, but what about when she insists that you change her diaper on your bed instead of on her changing table? You don't want to break your child's spirit, but you do want to set limits.


You need to say yes to your little naysayer whenever you can  -- in other words, when it isn't unsafe, inconvenient, or unreasonable. "Your role as a parent is to give in on those things that aren't important," says Villegas-Reimers. "Try to strike a balance so it's not always your way or the child's way."

But when you have to get your way, do it as quickly, firmly, and deliberately as you can. Once you've physically put your toddler in her car seat, you can explain your reasoning in simple terms  -- you can tell her that it's dangerous to ride in a car without one, for instance. You don't want to give her the message that you're more powerful, say experts. What you do want to tell her is that there are good reasons for doing this. Repeat them even if she disagrees or doesn't like your explanation.

Milestone: Learning Empathy

At about 2, toddlers may begin to make the first connections between their own feelings and behavior and those of other people. This is usually a welcome change: Most of us are touched by a little child's comforting gestures when we're troubled or sad.


There's probably nothing more painful than hearing your toddler cry  -- especially if you know he's feeling sad or distressed (or he senses someone else is feeling these emotions). When his baby brother fell from the kitchen counter, 2-year-old John Randolph Colby started to cry. That's when his mom, Carol, realized she needed to be more cautious with her own emotions. "He picked up on our anxiety, and it scared him," says Colby, of Thomaston, GA. "You think you can hide things from them, but then you see that every expression on your face is read and understood."


Even if your child is sad because someone else is crying or hurt, it's okay. "Rather than trying to make things better, help him translate what he's feeling," says psychologist Lawrence Shapiro, Ph.D., author of How to Raise a Child With a High EQ, who says toddlers are best served by parents who help them cope by identifying their emotions  -- not by fixing them.

Sometimes tears aren't a bad thing at all, so before you rush to comfort your child, try to determine the reason for his sorrow. "Many parents don't want to see their child in distress, but if he's crying because he's hit someone, he should feel guilty  -- guilt and shame are socializing emotions," says Shapiro.

And you can set a good example by labeling your own emotions honestly. Don't be shy about telling your child when you're angry, sad, or disappointed. Just stay away from "you-make-me-so-mad" statements so he won't feel that he's responsible for your feelings.

Now, the Good News

Even though the so-called "terrible twos" may present parents with standoffs and struggles, the upside is substantial: These are also the years when you need to keep a pen and paper handy to write down your child's many wonderfully idiosyncratic comments; when she first makes jokes and laughs at them; when he shows you his love as well as his need for you.

It helps if you try to look at these milestones  -- and the way your child handles them  -- as a confirmation of your skills as a parent. "With my 2-year-old daughter, I look at all the new things she's doing as a gift, more of a delight than a challenge," says Jill Riddell, of Chicago. "It's just lovely to see her do something that I didn't know she could. It's like I'm passing a test with flying colors."

Contributing editor Barbara Rowley is author of Baby Days.