Making the Most of Your Toddler’s Cognitive Milestones

Your wee one is learning a lot right now: here's how to help

Simone Houle is not yet two, but she knows what she wants and how to get it. Sometimes the Victoria toddler relies on her impish grin. Other times, the demand is delivered with a wail, words and a stomp. “She is pretty good at asserting herself,” laughs mom Suzanne Goudge.

Amazing transformations happen between a child’s first and third birthday. “It’s a challenging period, but your child is becoming more intelligent and starting to express her individuality,” says Dr. Ana Hanlon-Dearman, a developmental pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg.

During these years you’ll see leaps in your child’s cognitive abilities: communication, memory, understanding of spatial relationships and cause and effect. Watch too for development of her executive functions (control of actions and emotions.) So, how can you help? We picked some experts’ brains to find out.

Making the Most of Your Toddler's Cognitive Milestonescommunication

Toddlers understand more than they can say. “When Aryka was 18 months old, I asked her to put on her shoes and go to the car, honestly without any expectations,” says Lorryann Arsenault, an early childhood education instructor from Moncton, N.B. “She went to the closet, put on her shoes and stood by the door saying, “car.”

By age one, kids can say “mama” and “dada” and two other words; by 18 months most have 30 words, including partial words like “baba” for bottle and that toddler favourite, “no.” By two, most children have about 50 words they can combine: “want juice.”

What you can do: • Talk, talk, talk and give him plenty of opportunity to speak as well. • Model — when the child points and says “uh!” say “oh, you want a cracker.”


Babies think that what they can’t see has disappeared, but your toddler has a grasp of object permanence. He only has a limited understanding of time and is developing a working memory — such as where his shoes should go each night when he takes them off, Dr. Hanlon-Dearman says.

What you can do: • Use time words (this morning, yesterday) and relate them to events in the child’s life. • ing building-on songs like Bingo or Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.

spatial relationships

Toddlers are beginning to understand their body in relation to the rest of the world, “but it is rudimentary,” says Arsenault. “Children will stand up under a table as they have no concept of their size.”

What you can do: • Give your child shape-sorter toys and categorizing games. • Build forts and point out she is too big to stand up inside or show her she is too small to reach a high shelf.

cause and effect

This cognitive skill becomes more complex in the toddler years. “It’s how they come to realize they can have an impact on the world around them,” says Arsenault. A good example is a tantrum, which “promotes the child’s understanding that by having one (cause), he’ll get his way (effect),” says Arsenault.

What you can do: • Build a block tower to knock down. • Set out containers (plastic pail, metal pot, shoe box) and toss in a ball or toy to listen for the different sounds that are made.


A toddler with good self-control, who is able to understand dos and don’ts, will have an easier transition to preschool or playgroups since he will be able to switch tasks, pay attention, follow routines and react less impulsively.

What you can do: • Set consistent routines. “If the environment is organized and stable, then the child is learning to become organized and stable,” says Dr. Hanlon-Dearman. • Model calming techniques (taking a deep breath, taking a break) for your child.

Victoria writer and mom of two Tanya Klaes Demmings is still working on developing her own executive functions.

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