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May 2011

Stepping Out

Your One-Year-Old Wonder

By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.

First in a 12-Part Series

A note about child development: The purpose of this series is to help parents and caregivers recognize normal stages and to provide age-appropriate activities, nurturing and guidance. Each child is unique. Rates of development can differ widely among normally developing children, and each child can have “fast” or “slow” rates of development in different areas and at different times. These descriptions are merely based on typical behaviors for the age. If your child is not exhibiting “normal” developmental behaviors, there is no cause for alarm. However, a discussion with a development specialist can help you to determine if any special interventions are necessary.

Around her first birthday, a baby is changing into a toddler. She lets go of the furniture or your hand and takes a few unsteady steps before her knees collapse and she lands on her bottom. With a glance to her supportive audience, she gets herself back up, hands held wide and high to add balance, and off she toddles, again.

To support the “drunken sailor” gait of a new walker, you should provide a safe area, free of sharp edges and hard surfaces. Bare feet give her the best feel of a floor, carpet or sandy beach. Once she has the hang of walking, she’ll do all right with socks and shoes; however, it is quite common for a new toddler to take one shoe off and leave the other shoe on. Why? The shoed foot is for traction, and the sock foot is for spin.

The triumphant achievement of walking is considered by some to be the largest psychological milestone of a lifetime, more exhilarating than a driver’s license or that first paycheck. Think of it. Your toddler can now head off in her own chosen direction, proving to herself that her body is separate from yours.

A behavior typical around 15 to 18 months is to walk about 10 yards away, turn, laugh and toddle back to you. As long as you stay put, she is able to prove to herself that she can leave you and return to you. If you are in a busy public place and don’t feel she is safe that far away from you, both of you are likely to get frustrated. Because if you get up and follow her, she will try to keep that distance between you. Try to find time to play this game in a safe space so she can psychologically “separate” herself from you.

The Concept of Self

Which brings us to the very important concept of self. At one, this is a new awareness. Previously, your legs took your baby where she needed to go, your arms reached what she needed to have. You can test to see if she has a sense of self by showing her herself in the mirror. That is, at least several minutes after you have discreetly smudged some flour or lipstick on her nose with a tissue. If she looks in the mirror and touches her face to brush off the smudge, she is self-aware. However, if she reaches toward the reflection because “the baby in the mirror” has something on her nose, she does not yet understand that she is looking at an image of herself.

It’s interesting to look at family photos with a toddler. As you point out the folks she knows, she will repeat names of these familiar faces, including pets, but usually will not repeat her own name. It’s as if she needs no name. In the Bible story, Moses wants to know to whom he is speaking and God responds, “I am that I am.” Your toddler may similarly consider herself the supreme being of the universe.

So being a god, your one-year-old presumes everything in her explorable world is hers to explore. She may still put objects in her mouth to investigate variations in contours, surface texture, firmness, etc. She drops things on the floor so her hand can hold something else. She crumples things, such as a green leaf and a brown one, to see what happens.

The Explorer

She will climb stairs on all fours until eventually mastering the two feet per step technique. Going up is much easier than going down. You should spend some time teaching her to crawl down feet first – with your body just below hers for safety. Show her how to hold the railing (or hold her hand) to help her walk up the stairs, then down when she’s ready. Safety gates can close off stairs when you cannot practice together.

In her explorations, she will delight in finding containers to dump. This could be a plastic tub of blocks, a wicker basket of magazines, the contents of her diaper bag or the kitchen silverware drawer. Good advice is to limit the number of “dump toys” she has access to. She has little understanding of why you wouldn’t want everything all over the floor at the same time.

It’s never too early to begin enjoying picture books. Durable and washable books are perfect for starting a toddler’s library. Talk about the pictures using an animated voice to hold her attention. A story line isn’t as important as following her interest in the illustrations. Backwards, forwards, one page or two, it’s all about discovery. “Look! Here’s a baby in the bathtub! He has a rubber ducky just like you have!” She smiles, turns the page and points to another object she wants to hear your words about. Books are great conversation starters as well as a way to reinforce words she has heard in different contexts. Her vocabulary will grow as she hears words from you. Her comprehension is ahead of her ability to speak, so be sure to use repetition as well as new words and phrases each day. Sign language has become popular among parents and professional child care providers since toddlers can control their hands more easily than the complex mechanics of speech. If she has 50 words and signs at her disposal, she probably understands around 200. Getting closer to her second birthday, you may notice as many as 10 new words a day.

Television can add vocabulary but shouldn’t substitute for real conversation with real people. It’s best to watch with your toddler so you can reinforce what she’s learning. But more than an hour a day is cutting into time she could be spending learning the interesting world around her “hands-on.”

Make Believe

As you safely supervise her explorations, you will note a shift from mouthing to touching. Since birth, the nerve endings in the mouth have been her primary source of information about the physical world—a clever design by nature to ensure that she enjoys eating—but around 18 months she will find her palms and fingers to be more sensitive. She will be thrilled with water play, smearing food, block stacking and your carefully supervised forays into such tactile media as play dough, fingerpaint and sand.

Family life is an important subject to study in toddlerhood. A few simple props are all that are needed to get her started with make-believe play. Enjoy the show as she cares for her baby doll or stuffed animal in imitation of your nurturing behaviors—a charming acknowledgment of the tender care she receives from you.

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist residing in Annapolis.