Toddler care and development: Mind, body, and safety

Are you a new mom or a new nanny trying to figure out toddler care for the first time? Here are some tips and practices to help make your life a little easier! From sleep schedules to nutrition and potty training, we’ve got you covered.

The toddler years: Creating a healthy routine for play, meals, and sleep

A toddler is a child between the ages of one and three. Children of this age are learning tons of new skills and striving to meet developmental milestones like learning how to move, communicate, and behave.

Establishing a regular daily routine for your toddler is essential to helping them thrive during this delicate developmental period. Of course, life as a Mama is hectic at best, so this is not to say that every day needs to look the same! The idea here is to take care to balance healthy routines with flexibility.

There are lots of things that you can incorporate into your daily routines to help support their development at this age, including habits that support their physical care, mental and emotional development, and, of course, their safety. We’ll dive into detail on each topic below!

For nanny-specific advice, read this post: 18 Ways to be a great nanny.

Physical care

Physical care for toddlers involves meeting their basic needs for nutrition, sleep, and exercise. It’s important to offer a variety of healthy foods, establish a consistent bedtime routine, and provide opportunities for structured and unstructured play to promote physical development.

Child eating a snack.
Toddler care and development: Mind, body, and safety

Nutrition and feeding

Proper nutrition and feeding are essential for toddlers as it helps to support their growth and development. Toddlers should be offered a variety of healthy foods from all food groups, including fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, and dairy.

At this age, it is important to avoid choking hazards. Always make sure children are sitting while eating, cut food into small pieces (including round foods like grapes), cook hard vegetables until soft, and always supervise mealtimes. Check out this PDF for more tips.

And, remember, young children are just starting to explore foods! Some may be picky eaters at first, so remember to stay patient, offer variety, and keep it fun when you can. Check out this post by Plant Based Juniors for some fantastic food play ideas to help picky eaters explore new foods, for example!

Looking for family meal ideas? Check out our post!

Sleep

Sleep is also an important aspect of toddler care. Researchers at the National Sleep Foundation say toddlers need between 11 and 14 hours of sleep daily, including naps.

Establishing a consistent bedtime and nap time routine can help toddlers wind down and fall asleep more easily. Create a safe, comfortable environment and a short but calming routine that they look forward to. Read more about establishing healthy sleep routines here.

Child climbing a wooden latter into a tree house.
Toddler care and development: Mind, body, and safety

Exercise and play

As most toddler parents or caregivers would agree, little ones at this stage have lots of energy! This means that it’s important to include plenty of time for play. Not only does play produce a boost in energy and mood, but it also keeps the brain stimulated and helps foster language and social skills, physical development, and coordination too.

To ensure that your child gets enough exercise throughout the day, make sure to provide opportunities for both structured and unstructured play. Plan activities such as outdoor walks or outdoor sports. I also suggest signing up for playgroups or heading to the local park when possible for socialization opportunities.

Exercise at this age might include activities such as running, climbing, throwing and catching a ball, and playing with toys that encourage movement and creativity. It’s also essential to ensure that toddlers have adequate supervision during play to prevent accidents.

Learn why outdoor physical education is so important in this post.

Mental and emotional development

Mental development in toddlers is characterized by rapid advances in their ability to think, reason, and solve problems. Emotional development in toddlers involves the growth of self-control and the ability to manage and healthily express their feelings while learning to communicate their wants and needs.

Language and communication

During the toddler years, children make significant strides in their language and communication skills. The Raising Children Network says that toddlers typically begin speaking their first words around 12-18 months, and by the age of two, they can usually put two words together to form simple sentences.

In addition to speaking, toddlers also begin to understand more and more of the words spoken to them. It’s important for caregivers to talk to toddlers regularly and encourage them to express themselves through words and gestures.

It’s also important to remember that this is a general guideline. Work with your pediatrician to determine your child’s “normal” and to assess their development, as all children have unique needs and timelines. Regardless, providing lots of opportunities for communication is key! Read more about early literacy here.

Two toddlers dancing in a living room. Example of positive toddler care.
Toddler care and development: Mind, body, and safety
Getting rid of the phrase “terrible twos”

I disdain the phrase “terrible twos.” Sure, meltdowns, fits, and tantrums are common around this age, but it makes sense why – Children are trying to understand and navigate a complex world with limited means of communicating how they think or feel.

How frustrated are you when trying to explain your feelings and someone doesn’t understand? It’s the same for them. That’s why the words we use to describe children need to be positive and affirming, not negative, like calling their behavior ‘terrible.’

So, I encourage you to consider how to help your toddler navigate their very big feelings while teaching them healthy means of communication. Watch the video below for an example.

@theholisticpsychologist

Please share this tiktok to bring more awareness to tantums and the role of parent figures in helping children to regulate (something they cannot do on their own) #selfhealers #coregulation #nervoussystem #childhoodtrauma

♬ Comedy – SoopSound

Note: Her example is a 6-year-old dysregulated child, but children are learning to regulate their emotions around the age of 2!

Here are my 6 top tips for a positive approach to navigating toddler emotions:

  • Stay positive: The first step to helping someone regulate their emotions is navigating your own. Take a moment to center yourself and approach the situation positively – Your little one can work through these big feelings, they can learn to navigate their emotions, and you can help them through it.
  • Regulate together: Co-regulation helps toddlers sit with their emotions and move through them. Try doing some deep breathing together with a mindfulness activity:
    • Flower & Flame: Pretend you have a flower in one hand and a candle with a lit flame in the other. Take a long, deep breath in while smelling the imaginary flower. Next, breathe out the breath long and slow while trying to blow on the imaginary candle. Try not to blow out the flame! Repeat this a few times until a calmer state is reached.
  • Encourage independence: There’s more on this below, but many power struggles can be avoided by encouraging independence rather than trying to stop a toddler from doing something they feel capable of doing.
    • Let them try: On this note, let them try! Give yourself extra time to get things done and give them a chance to try things first, like putting on their jacket. I like to create the habit of them trying twice and asking for help if they still can’t do a task. This way, they don’t feel they’re being told what to do and they have a chance to practice the skill.
  • Positive reinforcement: Use lots of positive reinforcement and affirmations. Phrases like “I saw that you just did ____ all by yourself! Great job!” or responding to them saying they can’t do something with “You can, you just need practice!” can help encourage independence too.
  • Provide choice: Provide two options, both of which you’re okay with them choosing. Again, they won’t feel like they’re being told what to do, but no matter which they choose, you will be okay with it.
    • For example, they are drawing somewhere they shouldn’t be. Rather than instigating a tantrum by taking away the marker and saying “no,” set a clear boundary and provide alternative options. Try saying, “I see that you want to draw. We can’t draw here, but you can draw in your notebook or on the chalkboard.”
Two children playing with wooden toys on the ground.
Toddler care and development: Mind, body, and safety

Socialization

Socialization is also a significant aspect of toddler development. Toddlers are naturally curious and are beginning to explore the world around them. So, caregivers must provide opportunities for toddlers to interact with other children and adults in various settings.

Providing opportunities for socialization can help toddlers learn how to share, take turns, and respect the feelings of others. These are all skills they will need as they enter preschool!

Cognitive development

Cognitive development refers to how toddlers think, learn, and problem-solve. Toddlers are constantly learning and exploring, and they are fascinated by the world around them.

Caregivers can support cognitive development by providing a variety of age-appropriate toys and activities that encourage exploration, problem-solving, and creativity. It’s also important to allow toddlers time to think and make decisions on their own, as this helps to promote independence and self-confidence.

Safety

Toddler safety is a prominent concern for caregivers, as young children are prone to accidents due to their curiosity and limited understanding of the world around them. There are several steps that can be taken to ensure the safety of toddlers, including childproofing the home, using safety gear such as car seats and helmets, and closely supervising children during play.

Here are some tips:

  • Get first aid, and require caregivers to have it too. Accidents happen and it’s best to be prepared! A first aid course is short and 100% worth it.
    • Also, keep a first aid kit stocked and accessible, and make sure everyone knows where it is.
  • Closely supervise activities (especially outside).
  • Always use appropriate safety gear and ensure it’s up to date/there is no wear and tear.
  • Make sure that toys are not choking hazards. Only provide age and developmentally-appropriate toys.
  • Safety-proof your home with outlet covers, baby gates on stairs, and making sure dangerous items (like kitchen equipment) are out of reach. Also, lock off dangerous rooms like the garage or shed.
A nanny making oobleck with a child.
Toddler care and development: Mind, body, and safety

Finding quality child care providers

Regardless of whether you enroll your children in child care centers, child care programs, have a trusted family member providing child care, or you hire a nanny, the role of toddler caregivers stays the same: To ensure your child is safe and provided with high-quality care.

High-quality child care for toddlers involves providing a safe and nurturing environment for young children while they are away from their parents or primary caregiver. This can include activities to support their physical, emotional, and cognitive development, such as reading, singing, and playing with toys and games that are appropriate for their age.

And, many toddlers will be ready to start preschool by the age of three, which is near the end of their toddler phase. Toddler teachers, or “early childhood educators,” are specialists in the early childhood workforce that understand the specifics of infant and toddler care. To learn more about why preschool is so important, read this post.

BTW, it’s also important to start thinking about childcare options as early as possible, as wait lists can sometimes be quite long! Reach out to child care centers and child care providers well before you need child care, as spots fill up fast with child care services.

To read more about finding the perfect family child care providers, read our post here.

Toddler milestones

Between the ages of one and three, toddlers go through profound development. According to the Child Mind Institute, at the age of one, they are rapidly developing movement, fine motor skills, language, cognitive awareness, and social-emotional learning.

At two years of age, toddlers continue to develop these skills while developing more independence and learning to communicate better with other children and their caregivers. For a comprehensive list of milestones, check out the post linked above.

Toddlers are also developing skills like potty training (or “toilet training”) and are ready to start learning the foundations of early literacy with hands-on activities. They’re also gaining tons of independence. Find some helpful tips for these milestones below!

Toilet training books to help you teach your child to use the potty
Toddler care and development: Mind, body, and safety

Potty training

Hopkins Medicine states that:

A child younger than 12 months of age has no control over bladder or bowel movements. There is very little control between 12 to 18 months. Most children are unable to obtain bowel and bladder control until 24 to 30 months. The average age of toilet training is 27 months.

Toilet Training by Hopkins Medicine

There are tons of different potty training methods out there, so I’d suggest doing some reading and web surfing to find what works best for you. For book recommendations, read about Mary-Jane’s top 3 potty training books!

Early literacy

Early literacy refers to the skills and knowledge young children need to develop to become successful readers. These skills surrounding language development include phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, and comprehension.

While toddlers aren’t ready to read or write yet, they are ready to start developing the skills that will help them later on! Developing fine motor skills (the skills needed to hold a pencil) is big at this age, which you can work on through arts and crafts.

Pregancy, Birth, & Baby suggests the following activities to develop a toddler’s fine motor skills:

  • Paint, draw, glue and cut (with safety scissors).
  • Pick up objects with tongs or toy tweezers.
  • Play with blocks, Lego or do puzzles together.
  • Roll playdough into shapes and cut with cookie cutters.
  • Sand play using spades and buckets.
  • Stacking cups or containers so they can pop the smaller ones into the larger ones. They can also use them to fill with water and practise pouring.
  • Thread beads.

You should also make reading a part of your everyday routine to help foster an interest in literacy. And, by incorporating things like music, games, and play into your day, you can help develop these skills too.

Read my post, 5 early literacy tips for parents, for more early literacy tips.

Encouraging independence

The phrase “No, I can do it!” becomes pretty common at this age. Toddlers are learning to be independent from caregivers and other adults and can have more influence over things in their lives.

By empowering toddlers with simple tasks around the house, you are teaching them a sense of responsibility and helping them learn how to take initiative. For example, giving your toddler the task of helping to set the table or pick up their toys after playing helps boost their self-confidence and teaches them organizational skills they will carry throughout their life.

Additionally, children with a strong sense of independence have an easier time adjusting to different environments and achieving more challenging tasks as they grow older. Montessori-inspired parenting puts independence at the root of parenting. To learn more about this parenting style, read our post here.

Lava lamp experiment with alka seltzer tablet
Toddler care and development: Mind, body, and safety

Toddler/preschool learning by subject

If you’re looking for ways to promote education and early learning, we’ve got many great resources for this age group.

Toddler health

Depending on your child’s health, they may need to only visit your pediatrician once a year for a regular check-up or head in for more frequent checkups. Talk to your pediatrician about what is best for your child! But, for an idea of what to expect, Kid’s Health has a great resource here.

Conclusion

These are just a few things to keep in mind when thinking about early care for your toddler. It’s important to find a solution that works for you and your family, and that you feel comfortable with. Remember, the most important thing is that your child is safe and happy!

When it comes to supporting your child’s development needs, establishing predictable and daily routines with your family can create a solid foundation for the development of healthy nutrition, sleep, and play. Help develop social skills by encouraging them to build relationships with friends, too.

It’s also essential to provide lots of education opportunities that are appropriate for their current developmental stage. Critical components are developing early literacy skills through hands-on and play materials, providing them the emotional foundations for healthy self-expression, and providing responsive caregiving that attends to their unique and individual needs.

Finally, when it comes to deciding which child care settings are best for your family, keep in mind your child’s specific needs and interests, seek quality care from in-home child care or child care centers, and be sure to check out the child care setting before you sign your little one up.

Resources

Here are a few posts that you may be interested in!

References

Complete Guide to Developmental Milestones, by the Child Mind Institute

Toilet Training, by Hopkins Medicine

More on toddler care & at-home learning

All things child care, child development, and ideas for school readiness! Also, find ideas to keep infants and toddlers busy with activities that respond appropriately to their developmental stage.

Elke Crosson
Elke Crosson

Elke Crosson has her BA in International Relations with a minor in Spanish at UBC (Okanagan). She is currently in her second year of the Master of Teaching program at the University of Toronto, with dreams of becoming an elementary-level teacher.

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