In focus: Understanding child development


Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. For the purposes of easy reading, the term ‘parent’ encompasses the biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, as well as individuals who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child. We also appreciate that every child is unique and has different strengths, vulnerabilities and experiences that shape their health and development.

When we understand a child’s unique developmental journey, we can nurture and respond to them in ways that match their age and capabilities. Knowing about child development can give adults some clues about why children might be behaving in a certain way, or what they might be feeling. That can help you respond to your child and support their development and learning in ways that are right for their age and individual needs.

Child development includes all the different aspects of a child’s growth and learning. It’s not just their physical growth and skills, but also the changes in their social, emotional, cognitive (thinking) and communication skills, and their growing ability to understand and engage in the world around them.

Positive development and learning in their early years helps children thrive – and builds the foundation for their physical and mental health and wellbeing throughout life.


Key things to remember

  • A child’s developmental journey, like their mental health and wellbeing, is shaped by their unique genes, relationships, experiences and environments.
  • Understanding what a child might be feeling and thinking about the world around them, and what they are (and aren’t) likely to be able to do at their current age helps you respond in ways that support healthy development.
  • Every child grows and develops at their own pace, and so their developmental journey is unique. While most children follow a similar process of development from birth to adulthood, some master certain skills earlier than others and some take longer or need a bit more help and direction.
  • Neurodivergent children and children with a physical or intellectual disability may think, move, communicate and/or process senses differently, which can influence their developmental pathway.
  • Identifying a developmental delay and getting help early can make a big difference for a child and their family.
  • There are things parents and carers can do throughout the developmental process to support children’s healthy development and mental health.
  • The best way to support your child’s development and wellbeing is to provide a safe and secure environment and respond warmly, consistently and appropriately to their needs.


Children go from being completely dependent on their caregivers for survival to becoming increasingly independent and engaged in the world beyond their family.

What is child development?

From birth, children grow and develop rapidly, especially in their first five years. Their physical growth is easy to see. But babies and young children are also rapidly developing a range of abilities that will influence how they communicate, learn, make decisions, solve problems, and interact and form relationships with others.

Children generally follow a similar process of development from birth and reach common ‘developmental milestones’ in certain age groups. Some resources describe stages of development using age ranges (e.g. 0–3 years, 5–12 years); some use terms like ‘newborns’ and ‘preschoolers’; and some use a combination of the two.

Our fact sheets offer information about child development for parents and families of:


What are developmental milestones?

Developmental milestones are abilities or skills that children typically reach as they grow, learn and engage with people and the world around them. Some health professionals ask about or assess milestones during infant and child health checks to help identify developmental concerns early, so families can receive support at the right time.

There are different types of developmental milestones including:

  • physical milestones – body movements like rolling over, going up and down stairs and being able to hold a spoon. Physical abilities and milestones are often described as ‘gross motor skills’ (big body movements like jumping or throwing a ball) and ‘fine motor skills’ (small movements like gripping an object with hands or drawing with a crayon)
  • social milestones – the ways a child reacts to other people and interacts with them; learning how to read social cues, and social skills like sharing and taking turns
  • communication and language milestones – for example, hearing, making sounds, putting words together into sentences
  • emotional milestones – experiencing a full range of emotions and learning how to express them in healthy ways; and
  • cognitive milestones – developing ways of thinking, exploring the world and learning.

Especially in their early years, children are growing and learning so quickly that it can be difficult for parents to know if their child’s behaviours are part of typical developmental changes or signs they need extra support in an area of development. Being aware of the usual age and order in which children reach milestones can help you be curious about your child’s abilities and areas of need. But it’s important to remember that every child’s developmental journey is unique, and these stages and milestones are based on neurotypical developmental processes.

Our fact sheets describe common developmental experiences for children at various ages, and ways parents and other adults can support children’s development and learning, including when a child or family is experiencing tough times. They include links to information about milestones for children in different age groups.


Knowing how children typically develop helps parents (and other family members and adults caring for children) to understand:

  • what a child might be feeling and thinking about the world around them
  • what a child is likely to be able to do, and what they probably can’t do yet
  • how best to respond to a child to meet their needs and support their healthy development and overall wellbeing.

The developmental process along with a child’s experiences will influence:

  • how they are experiencing the world
  • how much influence or control they feel they have
  • how they make sense of things happening to and around them; and
  • their capacity to manage their own emotions and stress, and to ‘problem solve’ when facing challenges.

By understanding the typical child development process, you can think about whether your expectations of your child and their behaviours are realistic. It’s good to keep in mind what abilities and skills your child is still learning. Stay curious about what they’re experiencing – including new, big emotions like frustration or fear – as they’re learning about how things (and other people) work and are being impacted by events going on around them. You can learn more about common developmental experiences and reactions for children of different ages in our fact sheets.

In this video (1 minute, 54 seconds) a parent of four children and a general practitioner share their views about why it’s important for parents to understand child development and each child’s unique journey.

Understanding what a child is likely to be able to do at different ages also helps you create a safe and supportive environment that’s appropriate to their developmental needs. For instance, creating a safe home where a toddler can feel confident walking and exploring, or for a school-aged child to have their friends visit.

KidSafe Victoria has great information about potential risks at different ages and stages of development and what you can do to keep your child safe.


Every child grows and develops at their own speed.

Most babies and children reach milestones in a similar order, but not at exactly the same age. For example, babies generally develop the ability to roll over, then crawl, then pull themselves up to standing, then learn to walk. But exactly when your child will do each of those things depends on many different factors, such as:

  • their individual characteristics – like their temperament, genetics, neurodivergence, interests and ways of learning
  • their physical health and factors like sleep and nutrition
  • their relationships with their parents and other family members
  • the places they live, learn and play; and
  • events or challenges that impact on their family, such as a bushfire or flood, parent’s illness or their parents separating.

Every child grows and develops at their own speed.

Some children develop certain skills earlier than others, and some children need longer or a bit more support and direction. Even children in the same family develop at different speeds.

Remember, what’s most important is providing a safe environment and responding to your child’s needs. This will allow them to develop at their own pace.

It’s common for parents to wonder what ‘normal’ child development looks like and if they should be concerned if their child isn’t reaching milestones at the age most children do. There is a big range of ‘normal’, and a small delay is generally nothing to worry about.

Watch this video (3 minutes, 11 seconds) to hear a general practitioner and parent talk about factors that influence a child’s development, staying curious about how your child is developing, and when to seek advice.

It can be helpful to think about some of the things that can influence your child’s development. For example:

  • Have there been any big changes in your family’s life lately – like moving house, or the arrival of a new baby?
  • Have you or someone in the family been experiencing health issues?
  • Is your family dealing with extreme stresses or relationship difficulties?

When these sorts of events or changes occur, children may need a little extra time, care and support with areas of their development.

Sometimes there is a physical reason for a delay. For example, delays in your child’s communication (if your infant isn’t making sounds, or your child is not saying as many words as would be expected for their age) could be a sign of poor hearing, or perhaps issues with the muscles in their tongue or jaw. In those cases, identifying the issue and getting help early can make a big difference.

Children who are neurodivergent, have a genetic condition like Down syndrome, or who have experienced trauma might achieve milestones much later. Neurodivergent children and children with a physical or intellectual disability may think, move, communicate and/or process senses differently – so their developmental pathway might be different.

If your child takes a lot longer to develop a new skill or reach a milestone than expected, or if you notice your child hasn’t achieved a couple of milestones over several months, talk to your child health nurse or doctor/GP. Identifying a cause or a developmental delay and getting help early can make a big difference for your child and family.


‘I think it’s important for parents to embrace their child and their differences and support them to become the best version of themselves. I know lots of families that have chosen to ignore things. As a parent who has always reached out for support when something doesn’t seem right, I’ve witnessed the difference for my children as they have grown. The child that gets support will learn positive ways to reach their own personal potential.’

– Kirsty, mum of four


The Raising Children Network has more information about ‘developmental delay’ including signs, what to do if you’re worried, and support for children who have a condition impacting their developmental journey.

It’s important to try to see your ‘whole child’ – their inner world, their relationships, and their experiences in the places they live, play and learn.

To understand and support your child’s development and mental health, it’s important to try to see your ‘whole child’ – their inner world, their relationships, and their experiences in the places they live, play and learn.

Understanding how a child’s reactions, behaviours and sense of control are influenced by their age and development can help you imagine what life must be like for your child – and respond in ways that support their mental health and wellbeing. It might remind you not to expect your child to be patient, or share, or calm themselves down when they’re not developmentally ready to do that yet.

Our fact sheets include information about children’s typical developmental experiences during different age ranges. They explore how children might react or behave if their parents or families are navigating difficulties or stressful times, and how you can best support them throughout their developmental process.

Whatever your child’s age, there are a few key things you can do that will support their healthy development:

  • Be warm and responsive. Respond when your child needs comfort or attention and show them how happy you are to see them.
  • Connect with your child. Listen, talk, sing, have a dance party, hug, or read books together.
  • Provide a safe environment so your child feels confident to explore.
  • Play – it’s how young children learn and develop physical, social and communication skills. When you make time to play with your child – even just for five minutes a day – it lets them know they’re important, and allows you to tune in to what they’re thinking and feeling.
  • Encourage learning and trying new things. Go to the park or playgroup so your child can try out their developing physical abilities, or visit a toy library where you can borrow new toys and games that are suitable for their current abilities.
  • Help your child to get enough sleep and nutritious food. This is essential for children at every age, from newborns to teenagers.
  • Find ways to be outside playing and exploring different places.


For more detailed information about child development and how you can support children’s development, learning and mental health from birth to around 12, check out our Emerging Minds Families fact sheets:

As a parent you know your child best. Remember that every child develops at their own pace. Thinking about your whole child and what’s happening in their world will help you to understand if they just need a little more time, or if they need some further support.

If you have any concerns about the way your child moves, speaks, learns or interacts with others, talk to your GP or child health nurse. Getting help early can make a big difference.

By learning and staying curious about what your child is experiencing, thinking and feeling, you can support their healthy development and their mental health and wellbeing, now and into the future.

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