Toddler development at 2-3 years: what’s happening

FeelingsThis is one of your child’s most important ages for emotional development.

Your toddler is going through lots of emotions while also learning about other people’s feelings. Temper tantrums are normal, because children often don’t know how to put words to ‘big’ emotions like frustration, anger, embarrassment, guilt and shame.

Your toddler is also starting to understand how her behaviour affects you and how your behaviour affects her. She won’t have as much separation anxiety, and might not get so upset when you leave her.

Around two years, your toddler might be able to use sentences of 2-3 words and say ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘me’. He’ll learn and use lots of words and will be easier to understand when he’s talking.

At three years, your child will be able to use sentences of 3-5 words, or even more. She’ll start learning how to take turns when speaking, and might be able to have a short conversation with you.

Your child is learning how to talk about things that have happened during the day. With your help, he might be able to put things in order to make a simple story – for example, ‘I go shop.’ ‘And what did you do at the shop?’ ‘Buy milk.’ By three years, he might be able to tell a simple ‘made-up’ story based on his experiences, but it will probably be quite short.

At this age your child will also talk about people and objects that aren’t with her – for example, ‘Grandma at the shops’, or ‘My ball in tree’.

Everything your child has learned so far has developed his thinking.

Your child is starting to understand concepts like time and opposites – for example, big/small and day/night. She’ll also start to point to body parts based on what they do, sort objects, and match shapes and colours. And she’s starting to remember what some things look like – for example, apples look red and round.

Your child solves problems by trying things out.

Playing and learning
Play is important because it’s how your child learns.

Your child will enjoy playing with others, playing dress ups, having tea parties, painting with his fingers or a brush, and playing ‘rough and tumble’. When he plays with you or other children, you might find that your child is getting better at taking turns.

Telling stories, singing and reading are also fun things for your child to do at this age.

Everyday skills
Around this time, your child is keen to do more things for herself.

For example, your child can probably wash his own hands, wash himself at bathtime, feed himself and get dressed – although he’s probably better at taking clothes off than putting them on! And he’s still learning so you might still need to help.

You can build your child’s confidence in doing things herself by letting her help you around the house with chores like sweeping or dusting. She’ll feel very proud when she’s a good helper.

Your toddler might even be ready to start toilet training. Some of the signs your child is ready for toilet training are if he:

  • can do most things that you ask without your help
  • is interested in watching others go to the toilet – this can be awkward or make you uncomfortable at first, but it’s a good way to introduce things
  • lets you know when he does a poo or wee in his nappy
  • can follow simple instructions like ‘Give the ball to Daddy’.

Watch and see whether your child is ready for toilet training – but try not to push it. Going to the toilet is one of the hardest things for your child to learn because it uses so many skills. For example, your child must know when she needs to do a wee or a poo, understand that she should do wees and poos in the toilet, be able to walk and climb onto the potty or toilet, and pull clothes up and down.

If you start toilet training too early, it might take your child a while to learn.

Your toddler can run and will probably fall less. He’s starting to walk up and down stairs on his own, but will sometimes use the rail for balance. He’s now better at throwing overarm, kicking and catching a ball, and might even stand on one foot for a few seconds.

If you’re around while your child explores, she feels reassured and safe. This helps your child to build confidence to try new things and explore on her own.

With your child so active, it’s a good idea to look at how you can make your home safe for him to move around in.

At this age, your toddler might also:

  • jump on the spot
  • ride a tricycle
  • recognise objects and name them
  • use one foot and then the other foot when walking up stairs.

Helping toddler development at 2-3 years

Here are some simple things you can do to help your child’s development at this age:

  • Give your child the chance to play with others: play is a great way for your child to make friends and learn how to be with other children. But don’t expect sharing and taking turns just yet – toddlers still think that everything belongs to them.
  • Encourage everyday skills like using a spoon and putting on shoes. These skills involve both small and big muscle movements, as well as your toddler’s ability to think about what she’s doing.
  • Talk with your toddler: naming and talking about everyday things – body parts, toys and household items like spoons or chairs – helps develop your child’s language skills. At this age, you can teach your child that a ‘chair’ can be a ‘big chair’, ‘red chair’ or even a ‘big red chair’.
  • Give meaning to your child’s talking by listening and talking back to him. If your toddler says ‘Mama milk’, you might reply by saying ‘You want Mum to get you some milk?’ This also makes your child feel valued and loved.
  • Read to your toddler: you can encourage your child’s talking and imagination by reading together, telling stories, singing songs and reciting nursery rhymes.
  • Do some cooking with your child: this helps your toddler to get interested in healthy food, learn some new words, and start to become familiar with maths concepts like ‘half’, ‘1 teaspoon’ or ‘30 minutes’. You can give her simple things to do, like tossing a salad or putting together sandwiches.
When your child learns a new skill, celebrate his achievements with lots of praise and positive attention. It’s also a good idea to help and encourage him to keep doing the things he has learned, even if he finds them hard.

Parenting a toddler at 2-3 years

As a parent, you’re always learning. Every parent makes mistakes and learns through experience. It’s OK to feel confident about what you know. And it’s also OK to admit you don’t know something and ask questions or get help.

With all the focus on looking after a child, you might forget or run out of time to look after yourself. But looking after yourself physically and mentally will help you with the understanding, patience, imagination and energy you need to be a parent.

Sometimes you might feel frustrated or upset. But if you feel overwhelmed, put your child in a safe place like a cot, or ask someone else to hold her for a while. It’s OK to take some time out until you feel calmer. You could also try going to another room to breathe deeply or calling a family member or friend to talk things through.

Never shake a toddler. It can cause bleeding inside the brain and likely permanent brain damage.

It’s OK to ask for help. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the demands of caring for your toddler, call your local Parentline. You might also like to try our ideas for dealing with anger, anxiety and stress.

When to be concerned about toddler development at 2 years

See your child and family health nurse or GP if you have any concerns or notice that your two-year-old has any of the following issues.

Seeing, hearing and communicating
Your child:

  • has trouble seeing or hearing things
  • isn’t using two words together – for example, ‘Red car’.

Behaviour and play
Your child:

  • can’t follow simple instructions – for example, ‘Please give me the ball’
  • doesn’t copy actions or words – for example, when singing ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’
  • doesn’t pretend during play – for example, doesn’t pretend to feed a doll
  • isn’t showing his feelings
  • doesn’t come to you for affection or comfort.

Movement and motor skills
Your child:

  • can’t walk up and down stairs, even if holding on to you or a rail
  • can’t run
  • finds it hard to handle small objects – for example, a crayon
  • isn’t scribbling or trying to draw.

When to be concerned about toddler development at 3 years

See your child and family health nurse or GP if you notice your three-year-old has any of the following issues.

Seeing, hearing and communicating
Your child:

  • doesn’t look you in the eye
  • has trouble seeing or hearing things
  • isn’t using three-word sentences
  • is often hard to understand when talking to you, family or friends.

Behaviour and play
Your child:

  • doesn’t understand simple instructions – for example, ‘Please give me the ball’
  • isn’t interested in other children
  • finds it difficult to separate from her primary caregiver
  • doesn’t pretend during play – for example, doesn’t pretend to play ‘shopping’ or ‘riding on the bus’.

Movement and motor skills
Your child:

  • can’t run
  • isn’t scribbling or drawing
  • finds it hard to handle small objects – for example, a pencil or crayon.

You should see a child health professional if your child loses skills he had before.

You should also see your child and family health nurse or GP if you or your partner experiences the signs of postnatal depression in women or postnatal depression in men. Symptoms of postnatal depression include feeling sad and crying for no obvious reason, feeling irritable, having difficulty coping and feeling very anxious.

Children grow and develop at different speeds. If you’re worried about whether your child’s development is ‘normal’, it might help to know that ‘normal’ varies a lot. But if you still feel that something isn’t quite right, see your child and family health nurse or GP.