Your toddler may surprise you now by drawing vertical and horizontal lines, and maybe even a circle, although scribbling still carries the day. These drawings may seem simple to you, but they’re a sign that many aspects of your child’s development are on track. Drawing with a crayon involves fine motor skills such as grasping and holding, as well as hand-eye coordination and imagination. If you can’t recognize any straight lines in your toddler’s scribbles or your child doesn’t seem interested in drawing, it’s too early to worry. It probably just means that your child is more focused on developing gross motor skills right now, such as walking, running, climbing stairs, and pushing and pulling toys and boxes.
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What you can do: Set up your toddler with big sheets of thick paper taped to the table (paper that slides can be frustrating). Most toddlers work best with thick, sturdy crayons or washable pens. If your toddler isn’t interested in sitting down to draw at the table, offer some alternatives: chunky sidewalk chalk to use outdoors, paper pinned to an easel instead of a flat surface, or soap crayons to use in the tub.
Running, climbing, and more
At 20 months, your child may be able to run. She may also go up stairs by herself but need some help on the way down. She’s probably still working on throwing a ball overhand, kicking a ball forward, and jumping – skills she’s likely to master by age 2.
Language and cognitive development
It may be just two words to you, but it’s a full sentence to your toddler and a giant step forward in terms of language acquisition. “Daddy hat” is her way of saying, “There’s daddy’s hat.” Or, “Sissy doll” indicates that she knows a particular toy belongs to her sister. Her vocabulary may also include a few verbs such as “gone” or “fall,” which she also uses to create simple sentences — “All gone,” or “Me fall,” for example.
Between 18 and 21 months, children seem eager to imitate the words they hear around them. A typical 20-month-old has a spoken vocabulary of about 12-15 words, though many children have far more. But even if your child isn’t talking in simple sentences yet, she likely understands many more words than she can say. If you want to test this, ask her to go to her room and bring you a pair of pajamas or some other item that you’ve never heard her name. Odds are she’ll trot off and return with exactly what you asked for.
What you can do: Continue to encourage a love of language by talking with your child and labeling things that you see together. Don’t forget the sounds. Your toddler will enjoy listening to things like sirens, barking dogs, or singing birds. Try labeling what you hear (“weeee, goes the siren”). Sounds are often easier for toddlers to repeat than the words for the objects making them. If your child wants to talk on the phone, enlist a friend or relative who’s willing to chat with her for a few minutes. Even though her response will likely be to nod or shake her head in response to her phone friend’s questions, she’ll enjoy the interaction.
Figuring out how things work
At this age your toddler is very curious about how things work. She probably likes to dismantle toys and try to put them back together. Expect to catch her peering down the bathtub drain to see where the water goes, looking in your purse for your car keys, or checking the trash can after you’ve thrown something away.
Your toddler is also intrigued by toys such as jack-in-the-boxes, nesting blocks, or shape-fitters — anything that contains a hidden surprise. Her interest will extend to everyday events with a surprising twist, too.
Behavioral health and development
Toddlers are naturally curious about everything – including their genitals. So don’t be surprised if you notice her exploring, just as she did with her fingers and toes at a much earlier stage. It’s not sexual, even though boys may get erections while they’re doing it. It simply feels good.
You don’t need to discourage it or comment on it. Privacy and modesty are abstract concepts that she won’t understand yet. If you’re in public and embarrassed by hi behavior, try distracting your child with another activity and explaining that some things are done only at home. If you need an analogy, explain that touching yourself is something most people like to do alone, like taking a shower or going to the bathroom article.
Small children frequently resort to hitting, pushing, biting, tugging, and other frowned-on behavior to feel more important, but also to experiment: What happens when I hit Emma? Will the same thing happen when I hit Jacob? Other factors at play are a combination of emerging language skills, a fierce desire to become independent, and undeveloped impulse control. As your toddler matures, he’ll eventually learn to express his frustration with words.
Keep a close eye on your toddler when she plays with other children. The moment she starts to hit, bite, or push others, remove her from the situation and gently but firmly remind her that hitting is not okay. Expect to reinforce this message many, many times before the behavior stops.
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If another child pushes or hits her, and you sense that she might hit back, distract both children by redirecting them to a new activity. Monitor them closely as they play, and be ready to step in again if necessary. Praise them when you see them doing something cooperative, such as sharing a toy or playing together calmly.
Never, under any circumstances, hit your child to teach her a lesson. Some parents do this to show the child “how it feels,” thinking that if their child feels pain, she’ll be reluctant to hurt others. Unfortunately, this tactic usually has the opposite effect: If you hit your child – or let others hit your child – it sends the message that hitting is okay.
Managing pacifier and bottle use
Pacifier and bottle use often linger far into the second year. With moderate use, neither will harm your child at this age. But if she always has one or the other in her mouth, it may be time to modify or squash the habit. Here are some ideas for modifying or quitting these toddler pastimes:
Still uses a pacifier: Try limiting pacifier use to naps and nighttime, and praise your child when she manages to go without it. Find ten effective ways to help your child give up the binky on our pacifier page.
Still uses a bottle: Start by limiting bottle contents to water, and serve milk and juice only in a cup. Allow the bottle only at the table or in the highchair, so your child doesn’t carry it around all day or depend on it to get to sleep. Encourage comforting substitutes, such as a blanket.
The hard-to-give-up bedtime bottle is definitely one to ban because milk sitting on his teeth all night can cause serious tooth decay. If you want to leave a bedtime bottle for now, it’s fine as long as it contains water. You can simply hand your child a bottle of water at bedtime and she may be fine with it. Or, ease the transition by substituting water for part of the milk very gradually, adding a little more each time.
See what our expert says about a toddler who refuses to give up the bottle.
Trying new foods
You may also notice that mealtime is more complicated than it used to be. Your toddler now considers the flavor, texture, and even color of food when putting every morsel into her mouth. Continue to offer new foods often, but don’t force her to taste things. Eat the food yourself without making a big deal about it — eventually she’ll be curious enough to give it a try. Or you can encourage her to smell, touch, or even just lick the food. Talk descriptively about the food. “Yum, look at the bright red pepper. Hmmm, it smells sweet and it’s crispy when I take a bite.”
Even though your toddler can probably chew fairly well, it’s still a good idea to offer bite-sized bits of food – especially meat, chicken, fish, and vegetables – to prevent choking. Your 20-month-old has the fine-motor skills to handle a spoon or fork, but don’t be surprised if she doesn’t always want to use her utensils. She knows there’s more “hit” and less “miss” if she feeds herself using her hands.
Social and emotional development
Helping with chores
Your child loves to help: “Me do it” and “By self!” are two of a toddler’s favorite declarations. Take advantage of that built-in desire by involving your child in simple chores.
Many jobs are beyond his ability, but he can work alongside you to help with simple tasks, such as putting dirty spoons in the dishwasher, wiping up his own food spills, watering plants, or placing napkins on the table. Taking part in household activities makes your 20-month-old feel important – like a contributing member of the team.
Toddlers don’t distinguish between work and play. They just like to do. Encourage this attitude now, and your child may be an ongoing helper around the house. Be sure to offer specific approving praise, whether or not the job is done perfectly: “Wow, thanks for putting all those napkins on the plates!”
Imitation and pretend play
Does your toddler love to try on your shoes? Does he attempt to put on your coat, hat, or eyeglasses? By stepping, literally, into your shoes, he’s showing you — and himself — that he’s aware he’s growing bigger and that he wants to be like you. You may also notice him pretend playing with stuffed animals and dolls. He’ll take over the “parenting” role by feeding his stuffed monkey a “banana” (which is actually a yellow wooden block) or by tucking the animal under a blanket and singing it a lullaby. He may kiss the monkey’s “boo-boo” and want to put a bandage on it. Pretend play like this is a great example of imitation, and a sign that your child is learning to empathize with others.
Tantrums and assertiveness
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You’ve been warned about the “terrible twos,” but you may be unprepared for this rite of passage if your child has been cooperative up until now. The stage doesn’t necessarily begin on your child’s second birthday. Development experts say it can strike as early as 18 months and as late as 30 months (though some angelic children never go through this phase).
How do you know if you’re in the midst of the TTs? Look for new signs of assertiveness from your toddler. Hallmark behaviors to watch for: He may insist on doing exactly what you’ve told him not to do, or throw himself down on the floor in a fit of temper if he doesn’t get his way. His demands may alternately frustrate and amuse you. At times, for example, he’ll ask for something he doesn’t even want, just to see if he has the power to get it.
Resist the temptation to compare the way your 20-month-old behaves – or misbehaves – to how one of your older children acted when he was 20 months old, or to how your toddler acts in comparison to another child of the same age. Every child has a different temperament and reacts to situations differently.
Though you may be tempted to cry and throw yourself on the floor, too, the best thing to do during a temper episode is keep your cool, stay close to your child, and let him release his feelings. A hug and a shoulder to cry on may be all that some toddlers need to feel better, while others may benefit from the distraction technique — offer him another activity or toy.
If you’re in a public place or at someone’s house, pick up your child and take him someplace where the two of you can sit calmly until her feelings subside. Save the time-outs until she’s old enough to understand and follow rules – sometime between the ages of 2 and 3.
Hungry, tired toddlers are prime candidates for meltdowns, regardless of their temperament. It may not always be convenient, but your outings – especially meals in restaurants – are more likely to go smoothly when you can plan them around your toddler’s nap and eating schedule.
Late dinners that bump up against his bedtime are often the biggest offenders. If you’re dying to eat out, consider taking your family for a late lunch or early bird dinner. If you don’t have a choice, pack a nutritious snack and bring along a stroller so your child can take a nap if needed.
Preparing for a sibling
If you’re expecting again, the last trimester – when you can point to your big belly – is an ideal time to share the news with your toddler.
Take advantage of this time to help your toddler get prepared. Talk about the baby to get him used to the idea. Even though kids this age don’t really understand the concept, hearing you talk about it does lay the groundwork for what’s to come. If you plan to move your toddler out of the nursery or have him share a room with the baby, make the switch or add a crib well in advance of your due date.
Visit friends with newborns if you can. Check into a sibling-preparation class at your hospital. Many toddlers find babies interesting, and you can help yours interact safely with babies he meets in public by showing him safe places to touch a baby (the feet are good) and how to be gentle. Above all, enjoy these waning weeks of your family as it is.
See more top tips for helping big brothers and sisters adjust.
You keep hearing how important it is to brush a toddler’s teeth – but actually accomplishing this feat is not so easy. Some tips to make it happen:
- Try “monkey see, monkey do.” Brush your own teeth at the same time so your child can mimic you – a favorite toddler activity.
- Play up the spitting part, which many toddlers love once they’ve mastered it. Demonstrate how to swish a sip of water and then spit it out – and then let him practice as many times as he wants.
- Let him stand on a step stool so he can see his reflection in the mirror. Then count teeth together as you brush them.
- A battery-powered or musical toothbrush may entice a reluctant brusher.
- A small, soft-bristled brush is the most comfortable.
- Twice a day, in the morning and at night after dinner, gently brush your child’s teeth – both the inside and outside surfaces. Use a thin smear of fluoride toothpaste. This mineral prevents tooth decay by strengthening tooth enamel and making it more resistant to acids and harmful bacteria.
Washing your toddler’s hair
If washing your toddler’s hair is always a struggle, consider cutting his locks short so there’s less to fuss with. Wet his hair for shampooing with a washcloth rather than pouring water on his head. Use only a small dab of a shampoo formulated not to sting if it gets in the eyes.
Rinsing is likely to be the trickiest part, because getting even a few drops of water in their eyes bothers many small children. Try holding a folded washcloth over his eyes during rinsing. Depending on how much hair your child has, you may be able to get away with rinsing it with a wet washcloth instead of pouring water on it. Develop some sort of ritual for distracting him during the rinsing, such as singing a silly song or having him look in a hand mirror while you do it.
There’s no rule that says your child needs a daily shampoo, either. For most kids, once a week is plenty. In fact, hair that tends to be dry – such as African American or biracial hair – is much better off if it’s not shampooed too often.