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Early Childhood Development & Parenting Articles & Resources

Bridget Coila
Last updated:
Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor
MentalHelp independently researches, tests, and reviews products and services which may benefit our readers. Where indicated by “Medically Reviewed by”, Healthcare professionals review articles for medical accuracy. If you buy something through our links, or engage with a provider, we may earn a commission.

What Is Early Childhood Development?

Early childhood development includes all the cognitive, emotional, and physical changes a child goes through during the first few years of life. The time period defined as early childhood typically includes everything from conception through age 8, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. (1) During early childhood, the body and brain grow rapidly. Children go through a series of child development stages as they grow, and each stage includes developmental milestones. Specific stages of child development include: (2)

  • Prenatal: The entire pregnancy from conception to birth
  • Infancy: The time between birth and 12 months of age
  • Toddler: From ages 1 to 3
  • Preschool: From ages 3-5
  • Grade school: From ages 5 to 12, which also includes the preteen years

Some childhood development experts divide out the period between ages 8 and 11 as middle childhood and classify children 12 and up as adolescents

There are a few primary areas of childhood development with specific developmental milestones. (3) All these aspects of development are interconnected, so delays or accelerated development in one area often affects others. Most children develop at their own unique pace well within developmental norms. When considering various child development theories, the focus should be on the whole child. 

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Cognitive Development in Early Childhood

Cognitive development involves changes in the ways children think, learn, and remember. As development progresses from birth through early adolescence, kids become increasingly better at solving problems and understanding complex topics.

Brain development proceeds rapidly in the first few years of childhood. Infants begin to explore their world shortly after birth and develop an increasingly sophisticated ability to understand spatial relationships, cause-and-effect, and simple mathematical concepts. (4) Memory develops in tandem with cognitive skills, so infants and toddlers become better able to recall the things they discover over time.

Preschoolers build upon the lessons of infancy and begin to display more complex cognitive abilities. Mathematical skills develop as a child learns to count, identify shapes, and recognize patterns. Scientific thinking develops during the preschool years as well. Children begin to make observations about their world and talk about these discoveries. Problem-solving skills start to emerge, and preschoolers start to analyze the facts they learn. These skills continue to develop through grade school and adolescence.

Physical Development in Early Childhood

Physical development during early childhood includes physical growth and the development of motor skills. Motor skills are divided into two types. Gross motor skills include learning how to use the large muscles of the body, so these skills include crawling, standing, walking, and running. Fine motor development involves small movements, such as using a fork to eat, writing with a pencil, and buttoning a shirt. Both types of physical motor skills build upon each other.

Some specific milestones for physical growth during early childhood include: 

  • Weight gain of 4 to 5 pounds per year between the ages of 3 and 6
  • Development of 20/20 vision by age 4
  • The emergence of the 20 primary teeth by age 3
  • Well-established sleep habits, including consistently sleeping 11 to 13 hours per night without a daytime nap between the ages of 3 and 6 (5)

Emotional Development in Early Childhood

Emotional development during early childhood includes learning how to express, understand, and manage emotions. Healthy emotional development also involves recognizing the emotional states of others and responding appropriately. Mental health and emotional issues during childhood, including anxiety and stress, can hamper emotional development.

Biology, environment, and early relationships can all affect a child's emotional development. (6) Biological impacts may include genetic factors as well as congenital disorders and premature birth. The environment includes things such as environmental toxin exposure, abuse, neglect, poverty, malnutrition, and parental mental illness. All these can negatively affect emotional development because high-stress situations can cause permanent brain changes. 

Language Development in Early Childhood

Language develops in a specific, well-defined way during early childhood. The most important period for early childhood language development occurs during the first three years of life, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Childhood Disorders. (7) Crying is typically the first form of communication and emotional expressiveness  newborns have, and the recognition of familiar voices develops during these early days. Children generally recognize the sounds of their native language by 6 months of age and an understanding of specific words develops between 7 and 12 months. Tracking language milestones helps parents and doctors identify potential speech, language, and hearing issues. 

Physical and developmental issues can affect language development. Identifying potential problems, such as hearing loss, autism, or speech disorders and language impairments, early in childhood can help caregivers find alternative ways to communicate with their child and encourage language development.

Social Development in Early Childhood

Healthy childhood social development occurs as children learn to interact with others in their lives, including parents, teachers, siblings, and friends. Socialization with a variety of people helps children learn social skills. Social development is tightly tied to emotional development. Childhood experiences that disrupt the normal progression of social and emotional development may have lifelong effects.

The first social and emotional bonds a child forms are with the primary caregivers. A strong caregiver bond teaches the infant how to trust and gives the child a better ability to regulate emotions and manage stress later in life. (8)

As a child moves into the preschool and grade school years, social development expands to include an understanding of where the child fits into the world and how social rules work. Between ages 5 and 6, the ability to follow simple directions and rules emerges, and by age 8, most children fully understand the concept of rules. Peer groups and individual friendships also develop during the early grade school years, creating a foundation for future interactions with friends and family members.

Sources:

  1. https://www.aap.org/en/patient-care/early-childhood/
  2. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/Pages/default.aspx
  3. https://childcare.gov/consumer-education/your-childs-development
  4. https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/school-readiness/effective-practice-guides/cognition
  5. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002013.htm
  6. https://edn.ne.gov/cms/sites/default/files/u1/pdf/se18Helping%20Young%20Children%20Succeed.pdf
  7. https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/speech-and-language
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK534819/
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