Critical Periods of Development in The First Years of Your Child’s Life

by | Aug 4, 2020 | Child development, New parent

 Watch and listen to Ann McKitrick explain how the first couple of years in a child’s life are very important for their development.

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Critical Periods in Child Development

Our goal is to teach you to see, appreciate, and understand your child and yourself through a developmental lens. We take a lot of time to look at child development and what should happen and what is happening at different ages from birth to age 3, but I also like to focus in on adult development as well, because I think that where we are as adults makes a huge difference in our approach to parenting and how we’re able to manage it.

It certainly has changed for me over the years. I’m a parent, a grandparent, and an early childhood professional. I love teaching children, but also teaching parents and teachers about children. Today, I wanted to talk about critical periods of child development. In groups that I read, I see what people are thinking and talking about and I love to see their questions.

Learning to Walk

I’ve been thinking about some friends of ours who have a baby that unfortunately got cancer. He was diagnosed with leukemia when he was maybe six or eight months old. He had to be hospitalized for a long time. He was in treatment for nine-plus months. This poor little guy, during those critical periods when he should have been learning language, learning his gross motor skills and his fine motor skills, and things that happen in the first year of development, didn’t get to leave.

His parents made the most of it because there were some things that they could do in the hospital, and of course there’s lots of play therapy. He couldn’t learn to walk because he couldn’t go very far from his pole that had the IVs and medications hanging from it. He was able to do a little bit of movement. He certainly wasn’t able to move enough to take steps, but he could climb. He would climb up the back of the couch, climb up the window, sit in the window sill, and climb down to the floor. He is a very, very good climber.

He then came home. He was walking a little in the hospital, but he didn’t have the space and the ability to do as much as he did at home. Since he’s been home, he has mastered this skill and he’s a very fine walker now. You don’t want to discourage that kind of play, especially for a child who has had all this hindrance, but there are these critical windows of brain growth when certain things that happen in a child’s development in the first year, need to happen.

What I’ve just described is what happens if this critical window is open. It’s open for learning to walk, but he’s not able to walk. He’s not able to have that practice and get what he needs. What happens during this time will either support and help a child’s development, or hinder it. If it’s hindered, it doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. It just means that when it does happen, it will be a very intentional, concentrated focus on that particular skill that has been missed during this critical window. Our brains are very plastic, they can go back and relearn things.

Emotional Development

I want to focus in a little bit on emotional development. The critical window for emotional development is zero to 48 months. From the time your child is born until they turn four years old they are getting the foundation for their emotional development, which will support their emotional health in the time they go through elementary school to adulthood. It’s a really important critical window.

In the first year the brain is wired for trust, and so when we respond to our baby in the first year of life, we are teaching them that they can trust their environment, they can trust us to take care of them, and therefore they learn to trust their world. A child who is not able to trust their world has trouble with this as time goes on. It doesn’t mean that they can’t learn it. There are certainly situations where a child, for some reason or another, is not in a trusting environment and that can be fixed with this intentional focused care and development through time.

Learning to Trust

What does that look like in the first year to support trust? There are a few things that you can do. These are the things that every parent does naturally, but when you know the “why” I think it really does help you in the day-to-day, because sometimes it can get a little tricky.

The first thing that we need to do to establish trust is to attend to a child’s cries. Contrary to popular belief, your child is not trying to manipulate you in the first year of life when they’re crying. They just simply aren’t capable of it. Their brain isn’t that developed and they don’t have that kind of cognitive ability. That comes a little bit later on. When your baby cries in the first year, they need you, they need something, and the crying is the only way that they can communicate. Most babies by 12 months, only have maybe three or four words that they can say.

Sign language is a great way to teach your child to communicate. It’s a great bridge from not being able to speak to getting your verbal language, but your little one cannot communicate except through crying initially as a newborn, and then they begin to use their voice, inflection, grunts, and groans as coos to speak to you, but it’s still not words. When you attend to their cries, you are teaching them that you hear them and that they are important enough to you for you to come and respond to them, and therefore they can trust you to take care of them when they express a need.

Another thing is taking care of the basics such as feeding them, making sure they get good sleep, keeping them calm, changing their diaper, taking them outside. Consistent routines are very, very important in establishing trust. A calm environment is very helpful as well. These are just the basics of parenting. We can get caught up, when there’s a lot of chaos going on that we lose the perspective of the baby in our arms and what is it that they are experiencing. We want to always keep that in mind as we are just going about the day-to-day with our baby.

Reading Your Expressions and Listening to Your Voice

The third thing is that your baby is reading your expressions and listening to the inflection of your voice. This is also an important thing, an intuitive thing with parents, when they talk to a baby from 0 to 12 months of age, or older, they’ll use something that’s called “parent ease” or “mother ease”. This is just kind of the sing song that we use. If you have a baby and you’re walking around in public or people come to see your baby, you may notice that they talk in this “baby talk” but it’s just something that adults do in order to support language development.

It’s built into us, but it’s a very pleasant thing for children. It allows them to begin to do all of the coding that they need to neurologically figure out the meaning of language and words that they hear. They can read your emotions, your facial expressions, and tone of your voice. There is a fascinating experiment called The Still Face Experiment, where they put a baby and a mother in in a laboratory setting and watch what happens when the mom takes all the expression out of her face. It shows us how important our facial expression is when we are around our baby. The tone of our voice, the facial expression, and the care that we’re giving need to match up. They need to be congruent.

Responding to Sounds

Another thing that we can do to support their emotional development is to always respond to children when they coo or babble and smile. This is something else that just comes naturally to new parents. When your baby coos, babbles, and smiles and you respond, what you are communicating is that they are a person who is separate and apart from you, and they are able to influence others around them. This is what helps develop their sense of self.

An extremely important part of emotional development is the development of a sense of self. We really see that sense of self come into play when a child becomes a toddler and they learn that they have a lot of power and that they can control their world with their personal power. It’s a really neat thing to see as well. 

The last thing that we can do to support emotional development in the first year or first few years, is to protect and nurture our children from over-stimulation. There are times when we are in a situation with our baby and it’s just too much. It’s really important as the parent to take your child away when you can see that they’re getting a little stressed and they need you. Help your baby calm down if they get to over-stimulated. It’s a really important part of their emotional development, because if they stay over-stimulated, then there are things that happen neurologically that aren’t good. They need to calm down. You don’t want to stay in that state of hyper-over stimulation for long. It’s not good for us as adults, and it’s especially not good for little ones. Here is a little lesson on emotional development in the first few years, I hope it helps!

About me


I'm a child development specialist, parent coach and teacher trainer. I've cared for countless babies in child development programs, plus 3 kids, 3 grand babies and 5 foster babies! I LOVE babies and would come hold yours if I could. ❤️

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