Cognitive And Physical Early Childhood Development: What You Should Know

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

As a parent or guardian, you’re likely fascinated by all the firsts in your child’s life. Cognitive and physical milestones can help you track your child’s development and cognitive growth. For example, at six months old, a child should generally be able to roll from their stomach to their back and reach to grab the toys they want. Meanwhile, at nine months old, they will likely be able to move into a sitting position on their own and look for objects that drop out of sight. If you notice any potential delays, it can be best to speak to your child’s pediatrician to identify any potential underlying issues. Working with a therapist to develop effective parenting skills can also be helpful, and attending sessions online can make it easy to fit therapy into your schedule.

What are developmental milestones?

Is your child meeting important developmental milestones?

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control generally define developmental milestones as the physical, mental, language, social, and emotional skills present in approximately 75% of children by a certain age. 

It can be important to pay attention to how your child plays, learns new skills and information, speaks and understands language, and behaves with you and others for vital clues about their developmental progress.

Key childhood development areas

  • Cognitive development: How young children understand objects, takes in sensory information, and engages with the world around them

  • Physical development: How your child moves their body, with large body movements like sitting and walking, and small body movements, such as control over their hands, reflexes, vision, sleeping, and eating

  • Language development: How your child hears and understands sounds and uses speech to communicate

  • Social and emotional development: How your child interacts with and forms connections to the people who make regular appearances in their lives, such as parents, siblings, and grandparents, and how they react to strangers and places with new people

Two months

During the first two months of their life, your child will likely learn, change, and grow by leaps and bounds. Children experience rapid physical and cognitive developmental milestones from birth to two months typically center around developing basic senses, exploring their body parts and how they move, and learning about the world around them. 

  • Physical development: Can hold their head up while on their stomach, move both arms and legs, and open their hands

  • Cognitive development: Watches you when you move and stares at toys or other objects for several seconds

Four months

Most babies at four months are developing their sense of perception. You may notice them reacting to familiar sounds and voices, recognizing faces they see frequently, and responding to others’ facial expressions with imitation. 

  • Physical development: Can hold steady independently while being held, hold a toy when placed in their hand, use arms to swing at toys, bring hands to their mouth, and push up on their elbows while on their stomach

  • Cognitive development: Opens their mouth when seeing a breast or bottle if they’re hungry, stares at their hands with fascination

Six months

Your child at six months is likely full of wonder, often staring at objects that catch their interest. You may notice a developing ability to discern real things from fake ones, such as picking between a live animal and a stuffed toy. 

  • Physical development: Rolls from their stomach to back, pushes up with straight arms from their tummy, and leans forward on hands for support while sitting

  • Cognitive development: Puts objects in their mouth, reaches to grab toys they want, and closes their mouth when they don’t want food

Nine months

Most babies at nine months old are expanding their movement abilities and trying to explore the world around them. They typically understand when objects are gone, such as losing a bottle or snack. 

  • Physical development: Can get to a sitting position by themselves, their motor development involves moving objects from one hand to the other, rake food with their fingers, and sit without support

  • Cognitive development: Looks for objects that drop out of sight and bangs two things together


One year

As they reach the one-year mark, your baby’s cognitive, social, and physical development usually speeds up, and you may notice them observing or imitating you and other adults. They may begin producing spoken language in the form of simple words or concepts. 

  • Physical development: Can pull themselves up to stand, walk while holding on to furniture, drink from a cup without a lid that you hold, and pick up small objects between their thumb and pointer finger

  • Cognitive development: Can put something into a container and look for objects they see you hide

Fifteen months

Most children can understand the difference between themselves and others by 15 months. You may notice that they can identify similar objects and imitate others’ actions or speech. 

  • Physical development: Can take a few steps on their own and use their fingers to feed themselves food

  • Cognitive development: Tries to use objects for their correct function, such as cups or books, and can stack at least two small things, like blocks

18 months

By the time they are 18 months old, your baby may be actively learning through exploration and physical activity and frequently using their newfound mobility to see as much as possible. You may notice they can identify some objects in picture books, differentiate between “me” and “you,” and understand words enough to respond. 

  • Physical development: Walks freely without support, scribbles, drinks from lidless cups with occasional spills, feeds themselves with their fingers, attempts to use a spoon, and can climb onto and off couches or chairs independently

  • Cognitive development: Can copy your movements during chores, like washing windows or sweeping, and engage in simple play with toys, such as babbling into a toy phone

Two years

By the time they reach two years, your child will likely be developing a sense of independence. You may notice them begin to engage in pretend play. Much of their learning at this stage usually results from their experiences. 

  • Physical development: Their motor skills have developed to being able to kick a ball, run, walk up a few stairs independently without climbing, and eat with a spoon

  • Cognitive development: Can hold something in one hand while using the other hand for another task, attempts to use buttons, knobs, or switches on toys, and frequently plays with more than one toy simultaneously

Many children learn language structures and experience language acquisition to a more significant degree around the age of 24 months old. This subsequent language development is related to improving cognitive skills, which support language development. 

30 months

At 30 months, your child may be becoming more independent and exploring their world. They may learn quickly and respond to simple directions from caregivers. You may notice they recognize their reflection and demonstrate increasing intelligence. 

  • Physical development: Can use their hands to twist objects, such as doorknobs, remove some clothes independently, jump off the ground using both feet, and turn a single book page

  • Cognitive development: Often uses objects for pretend play, demonstrates problem-solving skills, can follow simple two-step instructions, and shows knowledge of at least one color

Three years

After reaching the three-year mark, your child may have the brainpower to analyze the information they gather and may constantly ask, "Why?" At this point, children’s attention spans tend to grow. You may also notice a developing ability to understand the concept of time. 

  • Physical development: Can string items like beads together, put some clothing items on independently, and use a fork to feed themselves

  • Cognitive development: Can draw a circle when shown how and avoids touching hot objects after warnings

Often, preschool age children love learning to use their bodies in different ways and may begin focusing on coordination-oriented activities at this time. 

Four years

By four years old, your child can likely learn through observation and listen to instructions. You may notice their attention span grow to five to 15 minutes, and they may be able to organize objects, seek information about how and why things work, and understand how to group items by color.

  • Physical development: Can catch a ball most of the time, serve themselves food or pour drinks with supervision, unbutton some of their buttons, and hold writing implements without using a fist

  • Cognitive development: Can name a few colors, remember what happens next in their favorite stories, and draw a person with three or more body parts

Ages four to five are also when theory of mind (TOM) skills begin to develop. In this stage of intellectual development, most preschool-age children develop TOM in the following order: 

  • Understanding “wanting”

  • Understanding “thinking”

  • Understanding “seeing leads to knowing” 

  • Understanding “false beliefs”

  • Understanding “hidden feelings”

Five years

In general, your five-year-old child may be nearing school age and is likely continuing to grow their ability to communicate with words, imitate what they see adults doing, count, identify colors, and complete some of the primary activities required for school readiness.

  • Physical development: Can hop on one foot and help dress themselves

  • Cognitive development: Can count to 10, name some numbers up to five by sight, use words that express an understanding of time, expand their attention span, write some of the letters in their name, and recognize some letters when you point them out

“Every child is different, and so is every parent's experience, but experts have a clear idea about the range of normal development from birth to age 5—and signs that a child might have a developmental delay.” — The Child Mind Institute’s Complete Guide to Developmental Milestones

Six years and beyond

As children enter middle and late childhood, they often understand more than 6,000 words and speak over 2,000 words. By age seven, they may begin using slang and cliches. Such dramatic language is often the result of rapid neural growth and reinforcement through positive feedback from parental figures. 

  • Physical development: Motor skills continue to improve as the body’s physical development progresses. 

  • Mental development: Begins to develop lifelong interests and explore slang, cliches, and more dramatic language. 

Is your child meeting important developmental milestones?

How therapy can help you learn parenting skills and understand physical and mental development during childhood

Working with a licensed therapist can be a valuable tool for helping parents learn new skills for raising happy, healthy children. A balanced parent may have an easier time helping their children learn language and communication skills at a rapid pace. 

Findings from the World Health Organization’s Growth Reference Study Group and similar studies, even very young children exhibit significant developmental growth when their parents are actively engaged in their learning. 

Benefits of online therapy for understanding your child’s development

You can speak to a therapist online through a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp. Flexible appointment formats through phone, video call, or online chat can make fitting therapy into your busy schedule simple. Keeping childcare may not be necessary, as you can attend therapy from the comfort and convenience of your home.

Effectiveness of online therapy for exploring cognitive development

Although more research may be needed regarding the efficacy of online therapy specifically for developing parenting skills, studies show that, in general, online therapy and in-person therapy are similarly effective. Please don’t hesitate to reach out for professional guidance and support.


Child development milestones can provide general markers to help you track how your child’s growth and emerging skills compare to most children their age. Identifying delays can help you recognize problems early so you know when to reach out to a medical professional to address any potential challenges. Parenting can be difficult and stressful at times, and it can be helpful to reach out to a therapist for guidance and support if you’ve discovered potential delays in your child’s development or are interested in developing healthy parenting skills.

Explore how childhood influences behavior
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started