The Toddler and Family

Chapter 32

The Toddler and Family

David Wilson

Promoting Optimal Growth and Development

The term terrible twos has often been used to describe the toddler years, the period from 12 to 36 months of age. Although the term may be used often to describe the toddler’s behavior, it is not meant to typify or label the child. It is a time of intense exploration of the environment as children attempt to find out how things work and how to control others through temper tantrums, negativism, and obstinacy. Although this can be a challenging time for parents and child as each learns to know the other better, it is an extremely important period for developmental achievement and intellectual growth. Toddlers are very lovable at times; however, because of their search for autonomy, they may test parents’ and caregivers’ patience.

Biologic Development

Proportional Changes

Growth slows considerably during toddlerhood. The average weight gain is 1.8 to 2.7 kg (4 to 6 lbs). The birth weight is quadrupled by 2½ years of age. The rate of increase in height also slows. The usual increment is an addition of 7.5 cm (3 inches) per year and occurs mainly in elongation of the legs rather than the trunk. The average height of a 2-year-old is 86.6 cm (34 inches). In general adult height is about twice the 2-year-old child’s height. Accurate measurement of height and weight during the toddler years should reveal a steady growth curve that is steplike in nature rather than linear (straight), which is characteristic of the growth spurts during the early childhood years.

The rate of increase in head circumference slows somewhat by the end of infancy, and head circumference is usually equal to chest circumference by 1 to 2 years of age. The usual total increase in head circumference during the second year is 2.5 cm (1 inch). Then the rate of increase slows until at age 5 years the increase is less than 1.25 cm (0.5 inch) per year. The anterior fontanel closes between 12 and 18 months of age.

Chest circumference continues to increase in size and exceeds head circumference during the toddler years. Its shape also changes as the transverse, or lateral, diameter exceeds the anteroposterior diameter. After the second year the chest circumference exceeds the abdominal measurement; this, in addition to the growth of the lower extremities, gives the child a taller, leaner appearance. However, the toddler still appears relatively squat and “pot-bellied” because of the less well-developed abdominal musculature and short legs. The legs remain slightly bowed or curved during the second year from the weight of the relatively large trunk.

Sensory Changes

Visual acuity of 20/40 is considered acceptable during the toddler years. Full binocular vision is well developed, and any evidence of persistent strabismus requires professional attention as early as possible to prevent amblyopia. Depth perception continues to develop but, because of the child’s lack of motor coordination, falls from heights are a persistent danger.

The senses of hearing, smell, taste, and touch become increasingly well developed, coordinated with one another, and associated with other experiences. All of the senses are used to explore the environment. Toddlers visually inspect an object by turning it over; they may taste it, smell it, and touch it several times before they are satisfied with their investigation. They shake it to see if it makes noise and vigorously test its durability.

Another example of the integrated function of the senses is the toddler’s development of specific taste preferences. The toddler is much less likely than an infant to try a new food because of its appearance, texture, or smell, not just its taste.

Maturation of Systems

Most of the physiologic systems are relatively mature by the end of toddlerhood. Volume of the respiratory tract and growth of associated structures continue to increase during early childhood, lessening some of the factors that predisposed the child to frequent and serious infections during infancy. The internal structures of the ear and throat continue to be short and straight, and the lymphoid tissue of the tonsils and adenoids continues to be large. As a result otitis media, tonsillitis, and upper respiratory tract infections are common. The respiratory and heart rates slow, and the blood pressure increases (see Appendix C). Respirations continue to be abdominal.

Under conditions of moderate variation in temperature the toddler rarely has the difficulties of the young infant in maintaining body temperature. The mature functioning of the renal system serves to conserve fluid under times of stress, decreasing the risk of dehydration.

The digestive processes are fairly complete by the beginning of toddlerhood. The acidity of the gastric contents continues to increase and has a protective function because it is capable of destroying many types of bacteria. Stomach capacity increases to allow for the usual schedule of three meals a day.

One of the more prominent changes of the gastrointestinal system is the voluntary control of elimination. With complete myelination of the spinal cord, control of the anal and urethral sphincters is gradually achieved. The physiologic ability to control the sphincters probably occurs somewhere between ages 18 and 24 months. Bladder capacity also increases considerably, and by 14 to 18 months of age the child is able to retain urine for up to 2 hours or longer.

The defense mechanisms of the skin and blood, particularly phagocytosis, are much more efficient in toddlers than in infants. The production of antibodies is well established. However, many young children have a sudden increase in colds and minor infections when they enter preschool or other group situations such as day care because of their exposure to pathogens and the lack of understanding of general hygiene measures such as hand washing.

Gross and Fine Motor Development

The major gross motor skill during the toddler years is the development of locomotion. By 12 to 13 months of age toddlers walk alone using a wide stance for extra balance, and by 18 months they try to run but fall easily (Fig. 32-1). Between 2 and 3 years of age refinement of the upright, biped position is evident in improved coordination and equilibrium. At age 2 years toddlers can walk up and down stairs; by age 2½ years they can jump using both feet, stand on one foot for a second or two, and manage a few steps on tiptoe. By the end of the second year they can stand on one foot, walk on tiptoe, and climb stairs with alternate footing.

Fine motor development is demonstrated in increasingly skillful manual dexterity. For example, by age 12 months toddlers are able to grasp a very small object but are unable to release it at will. At 15 months they can drop a pellet into a narrow-necked bottle. Casting or throwing objects and retrieving them become almost obsessive activities at about 15 months. By 18 months of age toddlers can throw a ball overhand without losing their balance.

Mastery of gross and fine motor skills is evident in all phases of the child’s activity such as play, dressing, language comprehension, response to discipline, social interaction, and propensity for injuries. Activities occur less in isolation and more in conjunction with other physical and mental abilities to produce a purposeful result. For example, the toddler walks to reach a new location, releases a toy to pick it up or to choose a new one, and scribbles to look at the image produced. The possibilities of the exploration, investigation, and manipulation of the environment—and its hazards—are endless.

Psychosocial Development

Toddlers are faced with the mastery of several important tasks. If the need for basic trust has been satisfied, they are ready to give up dependence for control, independence, and autonomy. Some of the specific tasks to be dealt with include:

Mastery of these goals is only begun during late infancy and the toddler years, and tasks such as developing interpersonal relationships with others may not be completed until adolescence. However, crucial foundations for successful completion of such developmental tasks are established during these early formative years.

Developing a Sense of Autonomy (Erikson)

According to Erikson (1963), the developmental task of toddlerhood is acquiring a sense of autonomy while overcoming a sense of doubt and shame. As infants gain trust in the predictability and reliability of their parents, environment, and interaction with others, they begin to discover that their behavior is their own and that it has a predictable, reliable effect on others. However, although they realize their will and control over others, they are confronted with the conflict of exerting autonomy and relinquishing the much-enjoyed dependence on others. Exerting their will has definite negative consequences, whereas retaining dependent, submissive behavior is generally rewarded with affection and approval. At the same time continued dependency creates a sense of doubt regarding their potential capacity to control their actions. This doubt is compounded by a sense of shame for feeling this urge to revolt against others’ will and a fear that they will exceed their own capacity for manipulating the environment.

Just as the infant has the social modalities of grasping and biting, the toddler has the newly gained modality of holding on and letting go. To hold on and let go is evident with the use of the hands, mouth, eyes, and eventually the sphincters when toilet training is begun. These social modalities are expressed constantly in the child’s play activities such as casting or throwing objects; taking objects out of boxes, drawers, or cabinets; holding on tighter when someone says, “No, don’t touch”; and spitting out food as taste preferences become strong.

Several characteristics, especially negativism and ritualism, are typical of toddlers in their quest for autonomy. As they attempt to express their will, they often act with negativism, the persistent negative response to requests. The words “no” or “me do” can be the sole vocabulary. Emotions are expressed strongly, usually in rapid mood swings. One minute toddlers can be engrossed in an activity, and the next minute they might be extremely frustrated because they are unable to manipulate a toy or open a door. If scolded for doing something wrong, they can have a temper tantrum and almost instantaneously pull at the parent’s legs to be picked up and comforted. Understanding and coping with these swift changes in behavior is often difficult for parents. Many find the negativism exasperating and, instead of dealing constructively with it, give in to it, which further threatens children in their search for learning acceptable methods of interacting with others (see Temper Tantrums, p. 932; see Negativism, p. 933).

In contrast to negativism, which often disrupts the environment, ritualism, the need to maintain sameness and reliability, provides a sense of comfort. Toddlers can venture out with security when they know that familiar people, places, and routines still exist. One can easily understand why change such as hospitalization represents such a threat to these children. Without the comfortable rituals there is little opportunity to exert autonomy. Consequently dependency and regression occur (see Regression, p. 933).

Erikson focuses on the development of the ego, which may be thought of as reason or common sense, during this phase of psychosocial development. There is a struggle as the child deals with the impulses of the id and attempts to tolerate frustration and learn socially acceptable ways of interacting with the environment. The ego is evident as the child is able to tolerate delayed gratification.

There is also a rudimentary beginning of the superego, or conscience, which is the incorporation of the morals of society and the process of acculturation. With the development of the ego children further differentiate themselves from others and expand their sense of trust within themselves. However, as they begin to develop awareness of their own will and capacity to achieve, they also become aware of their ability to fail. This ever-present awareness of potential failure creates doubt and shame. Successful mastery of the task of autonomy necessitates opportunities for self-mastery while withstanding the frustration of necessary limit setting and delayed gratification. Opportunities for self-mastery are present in appropriate play activities, toilet training, the crisis of sibling rivalry, and successful interactions with significant others.

Cognitive Development

Sensorimotor and Preoperational Phase (Piaget)

The period from 12 to 24 months of age is a continuation of the final two stages of the sensorimotor phase. During this time the cognitive processes develop rapidly and at times seem similar to those of mature thinking. However, reasoning skills are still primitive and need to be understood to deal with the typical behaviors of a child of this age effectively.

Tertiary Circular Reactions

In the fifth stage of the sensorimotor phase (13 to 18 months of age), the child uses active experimentation to achieve previously unattainable goals. Newly acquired physical skills are increasingly important for the function they serve rather than for the acts themselves. The child incorporates the old learning of secondary circular reactions with new skills and applies the combined knowledge to new situations, with emphasis on the results of the experimentation. In this way there is the beginning of rational judgment and intellectual reasoning. During this stage there is further differentiation of one’s self from objects. This is evident in the child’s increasing ability to venture away from the parent and tolerate longer periods of separation.

Awareness of a causal relationship between two events is apparent. After flipping a light switch, toddlers are aware that a reciprocal response occurs. However, they are not able to transfer that knowledge to new situations. Therefore, every time they see what appears to be a light switch, they must reinvestigate its function. Such behavior demonstrates the beginning of categorizing data into distinct classes and subclasses. Examples of this type of behavior are innumerable as toddlers continuously explore the same object each time it appears in a new place.

Because classification of objects is still rudimentary, the appearance of an object denotes its function. For example, if the child’s toys are stored in a paper bag or large container, that toy receptacle is no different from the garbage pail or laundry basket. If allowed to turn over the toy receptacle, the child will just as quickly do the same to other similar containers because in the child’s mind there is no difference. Expecting the child to judge which receptacles are permissible to explore and which are not is inappropriate for this age-group. Instead the forbidden object such as the garbage pail should be placed out of reach. This has significance in relation to protecting the toddler from injury; the toddler is not able to differentiate between safe objects with which he or she can play and objects which are unsafe under similar circumstances. For example, if the child is allowed to throw a toy ball, he or she does not necessarily understand why a toy block that may harm someone cannot be thrown.

The discovery of objects as objects leads to the awareness of their spatial relationships. Children are able to recognize different shapes and their relationship to one another. For example, they can fit slightly smaller boxes into one another (nesting) and can place a round object into a hole, even if the board is turned around, upside down, or reversed. Children are also aware of space and the relationship of their body to dimensions such as height. They stretch, stand on a low stair or stool, and pull a string to reach an object.

Object permanence has also advanced. Although they still cannot find an object that has been invisibly displaced or moved from under one pillow to another without actually seeing the change, toddlers are increasingly aware of the existence of objects behind closed doors, in drawers, on countertops, and under tables. Parents are usually acutely aware of this developmental achievement and find high places and locked cabinets to be the only places inaccessible to toddlers.

Invention of New Means Through Mental Combinations

From ages 19 to 24 months the child is in the final sensorimotor stage. During this stage he or she completes the more primitive, autistic-like thought processes of infancy and is prepared for the more complex mental operations that occur during the phase of preoperational thought. One of the most dramatic achievements of this stage is in the area of object permanence. Children now actively search for an object in several potential hiding places. In addition, they can infer a cause when only experiencing the effect. They can infer that an object was hidden in any number of places even if they only saw the original hiding place.

Imitation displays deeper meaning and understanding. There is greater symbolization to imitation. The child is acutely aware of others’ actions and attempts to copy them in gestures and words. Domestic mimicry (imitating household activities) and gender-role behavior become increasingly common during this stage, especially during the second year. Identification with the parent of the same gender becomes apparent by the second year and represents the child’s intellectual ability to identify different models of behavior and imitate them appropriately (Fig. 32-2).

The concept of time is still embryonic; but children have some sense of timing in terms of anticipation, memory, and a limited ability to wait. They may listen to the command, “Just a minute,” and behave appropriately. However, their sense of time is exaggerated; 1 minute can seem like an hour. Toddlers’ limited attention spans also indicate their sense of immediacy and concern for the present.

Preoperational Phase

At approximately 2 years of age the child enters the preconceptual phase of cognitive development, which lasts until about age 4 years. The preconceptual phase is a subdivision of the preoperational phase, which spans ages 2 to 7 years. It is primarily one of transition that bridges the purely self-satisfying behavior of infancy and the rudimentary socialized behavior of latency. Preoperational thought implies that children cannot think in terms of operations (i.e., the ability to manipulate objects in relation to one another in a logical fashion). Rather toddlers think primarily on the basis of their perception of an event. Problem solving is based on what they see or hear directly rather than on what they recall about objects and events. Several characteristics are unique to preoperational thought (Box 32-1).

Box 32-1   Characteristics of Preoperational Thought

Egocentrism—Inability to envision situations from perspectives other than one’s own

Transductive reasoning—Reasoning from the particular to the particular

Global organization—Reasoning that changing any one part of the whole changes the entire whole

Centration—Focusing on one aspect rather than considering all possible alternatives

Animism—Attributing lifelike qualities to inanimate objects

Irreversibility—Inability to undo or reverse actions initiated physically

Magical thinking—Believing that thoughts are all-powerful and can cause events

Inability to conserve—Inability to understand the idea that a mass can be changed in size, shape, volume, or length without losing or adding to the original mass (instead children judge what they see by the immediate perceptual clues given to them)

Example—If two lines of equal length are presented in such a way that one appears longer than the other, child will state that one line is longer even if he or she measures both lines with a ruler or yardstick and finds that each has the same length.

Implications—Change the most obvious perceptual clue to reorient child’s view of what is seen. For example, give medicine in a small medicine cup rather than a large cup because child will imagine that the large vessel contains more liquid. If child refuses the medicine in the small cup, pour it into a large cup, because the liquid will appear to be less in a tall, wide container.

Within the second year the child increasingly uses language symbolically and is concerned with the “why” and “how” of things. For example, a pencil is “something to write with,” and food is “something to eat.” However, such mental symbolization is closely associated with prelogical reasoning. For instance, a needle is “something that hurts.” Such painful experiences take on new significance because memory is associated with the specific event, and fears are likely to develop such as resistance to people who wear a uniform or rooms that look like the practitioner’s office. Because of the vulnerability of these early years, it is essential to prepare children for any new experience, whether it is a new baby-sitter or a visit to the practitioner or dentist.

Spiritual Development

Spiritual development in children is often discussed in terms of the child’s developmental level because the evolution of spirituality often parallels cognitive development (Elkins and Cavendish, 2004). The child’s family and environment strongly influence his or her perception of the world around him or her, and this often includes spirituality. Furthermore, family values, beliefs, customs, and expressions of these influence the child’s perception of his or her spiritual self (Elkins and Cavendish, 2004). Neuman (2011) proposes that Fowler’s stages of faith (Fowler, 1981) be used to better understand children and spirituality; she provides an excellent overview of the stages of faith in childhood. The relationship among spirituality, illness in childhood, and nursing has been studied in the context of suffering, terminal illness such as cancer, and end-of-life care. In the past decade there has been an increased interest in and focus on spiritual care in adults and children as further understanding of the influence of one’s spirituality on health, illness, and well-being has progressed.

Toddlers learn about God through the words and actions of those closest to them. They have only a vague idea of God and religious teachings because of their immature cognitive processes; however, if God is spoken about with reverence, young children associate God with something special. During this period the assignment of powerful religious symbols and images is strongly influenced by the manner in which it is presented; therein lies the potential for the development of guilt and fear or conversely love and companionship with religious symbols (Roehlkepartain, King, Wagener, et al., 2006). Toddlers are said to be in the intuitive-projective phase of Fowler’s faith construct (Fowler, 1981) wherein thinking is largely based on fantasy and rather fluid in relation to reality and fantasy. God may be described as being around like air by the toddler because of the fluidity in dividing fantasy and reality (Neuman, 2011).

Toddlers begin to assimilate behaviors associated with the divine (folding hands in prayer). Routines such as saying prayers before meals or at bedtime can be important and comforting. Because toddlers tend to find solace in ritualistic behavior and routines, they incorporate routines associated with religious practices into their behavioral patterns without understanding all of the implications of the rituals until later. Near the end of toddlerhood, when children use preoperational thought, there is some advancement of their understanding of God. Religious teachings such as reward or fear of punishment (heaven or hell) and moral development (see Chapter 28), may influence their behavior (Fosarelli, 2003).

Development of Body Image

As in infancy the development of body image closely parallels cognitive development. Developing psychologic understanding provides greater self-awareness, and young children learn to answer the question, “Who am I?” During the second year children recognize themselves in a mirror and make verbal references to themselves (“Me big”). With increasing motor ability toddlers recognize the usefulness of body parts and gradually learn their names. They also learn that certain parts of the body have various meanings (e.g., during toilet training the genitalia become significant, and cleanliness is emphasized). By 2 years of age they recognize gender differences and refer to self by name and then by pronoun. Gender identity is developed by age 3 years. By this time the child also begins to remember events with reference to their personal significance, forming an autobiographic memory that helps establish a continuous identity throughout the events of life.

Once they begin preoperational thought, toddlers can use symbols to represent objects, but their thinking may lead to inaccuracies. For example, if someone who is pregnant is called “fat,” they describe all “fat” women as having babies. There is a beginning recognition of words used to describe physical appearance such as “pretty,” “handsome,” or “big boy.” Such expressions eventually influence how children view their own bodies.

Although little research has been done on body-image development in young children, it is evident that body integrity is poorly understood and intrusive experiences are threatening. For example, toddlers forcefully resist procedures such as examining the ear or mouth and taking an axillary temperature. The procedure itself (e.g., taking vital signs) is not hurting the child, but it represents an intrusion into the child’s personal space, which elicits a strong protest. Toddlers also have unclear body boundaries and may associate nonviable parts such as feces with essential body parts. This can be seen in a toddler who is upset by flushing the toilet and watching the stool disappear.

Nurses can help parents foster a positive body image in their child by encouraging them to avoid negative labels such as “skinny arms” or “chubby legs,” self-perceptions that can last a lifetime. Body parts, especially those related to elimination and reproduction, should be called by their correct names. Respect for the body should be practiced.

Development of Gender Identity

Just as toddlers explore their environment, they also explore their bodies and find that touching certain body parts is pleasurable. Genital fondling (masturbation) can occur and involves manual stimulation and posturing movements (especially in young girls) such as tightening the thighs or applying mechanical pressure to the pubic or suprapubic area. Other demonstrations of pleasurable activities include rocking, swinging, and hugging people and toys. Parental reactions to toddlers’ sexual behavior influence the children’s own attitudes and should be accepting rather than critical. If such acts are performed in public, parents should not condone or bring attention to the behavior but should teach the child that it is more acceptable to perform the behavior in private.

Children in this age-group are learning vocabulary associated with anatomy, elimination, and reproduction. Certain associations between words and functions become significant and can influence future sexual attitudes. For example, if parents refer to the genitalia as dirty, especially in the context of elimination, this association between “genitalia” and “dirty” may be transferred to sexual functions later in life. Sex-role differences become obvious to children and are evident in much of toddlers’ imitative play. Although current research indicates that prenatal exposure to testosterone strongly influences the individual’s gender identity, researchers also indicate that there are sensitive periods (e.g., puberty) that may influence the development of gender identity (Berenbaum and Beltz, 2011; Hines, 2011; Savic, Garcia-Falqueras, and Swaab, 2010). A sense of maleness or femaleness, or gender identity, is formed by age 3 years, and the child’s feelings about being male or female begin to form (Fonseca and Greydanus, 2007). Early attitudes are formed about affectionate behaviors between adults from observing parental and other adult sexual or sensual activities. (See also Sex Education, Chapter 33.) The quality of relationships with parents is important to the child’s capacity for sexual and emotional relationships later in life.

Social Development

A major task of the toddler period is differentiation of self from significant others, usually the mother. The differentiation process consists of two phases: separation (i.e., the child’s emergence from a symbiotic fusion with the mother) and individuation (i.e., achievements that mark the child’s expressions of his or her individual characteristics in the environment). Although the process begins during the latter half of infancy, the major achievements occur during the toddler years.

Toddlers have an increased understanding and awareness of object permanence and some ability to withstand delayed gratification and tolerate moderate frustration. As a result toddlers react differently to strangers than do infants. The appearance of unfamiliar people does not represent such a significant threat to their attachment to mother. They have learned from experience that parents still exist when physically absent. Repetition of events such as going to bed without the parents but waking to find them there again (in the household) reinforces the reliability of such brief separations. Consequently toddlers are able to venture away from their parents for brief periods.

According to Harpaz-Rotem and Bergman (2006), the separation-individuation phase encompasses the phenomenon of rapprochement; as the toddler separates from the mother and begins to make sense of experiences in the environment, he or she is drawn back to the mother for assistance in verbally articulating the meaning of the experiences. Developmentally the term rapprochement means the child moves away and returns for reassurance. If the mother’s response to the toddler is inappropriate, the toddler may experience insecurity and confusion.

Transitional objects such as a favorite blanket or toy provide security for children, especially when they are separated from parents, dealing with a new stress, or just fatigued (Fig. 32-3). Security objects often become so important to toddlers that they refuse to have them taken away. Such behavior is normal; there is no need to discourage this tendency. During separations such as day care, hospitalization, or even overnight stays with relatives, transitional objects should be provided to minimize any feelings of fear or loneliness.

Learning to tolerate and master brief periods of separation is an important developmental task of children in this age-group. In addition, it is a necessary component of parenting because brief periods of separation allow parents to regain their energy and patience and minimize any tendency to direct their irritations and frustrations at the children.


The most striking characteristic of language development during early childhood is the increasing level of comprehension. Although the number of words acquired (i.e., from about four at 1 year of age to approximately 300 at age 2 years is notable, the ability to comprehend and understand speech is much greater than the number of words the child can say. Bilingual children can also achieve their early linguistic milestones in each of the languages at the same time and produce a substantial number of semantically corresponding words in each of their two languages from the very first words or signs.

At age 1 year children use one-word sentences or holophrases. The word “up” can mean “pick me up” or “look up there.” For children the one word conveys the meaning of a sentence, but to others it may mean many things or nothing. At this age about 25% of the vocalizations are intelligible. By the age of 2 years children use multiword sentences by stringing together two or three words such as the phrases “mama go bye-bye” or “all gone,” and approximately 65% of their speech is understandable. By 3 years the children put words together into simple sentences, begin to master grammatical rules, acquire five or six new words daily, know their age and gender, and can count three objects correctly. Looking at books during this period provides an ideal setting for further language development (Feigelman, 2011). Authorities have evaluated the impact of television viewing on toddler language development and found that those who started watching television at younger than 12 months of age and who watched longer than 2 hours per day had significant language delays (Chonchaiva and Pruksananonda, 2008). Adult-child conversations with infants and toddlers have been shown to positively affect language development; the researchers recommend reading, storytelling, and interactive adult-child communication (Zimmerman, Gilkerson, Richards, et al., 2009). The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on Communications and Media (2011) reaffirms that televised or recorded media usage in children younger than 2 years of age decreases language skills and the time parents interact with the child. Furthermore, educational programs have not been shown to increase cognitive skills in young children (AAP Council on Communications and Media, 2011).

Gestures precede or accompany each of the language milestones up to 30 months of age (putting phone to ear, pointing). After sufficient language development, gestures phase out, and the pace of word learning increases (Bates and Dick, 2002).

Personal-Social Behavior

Perhaps one of the most dramatic aspects of development in the toddler is personal-social interaction. Parents often wonder why their manageable, docile, lovable infant has turned into a determined, strong-willed, volatile little tyrant. In addition, the tyrant of the terrible twos can swiftly and unpredictably revert back to the adorable, cuddly child. All of this is part of growing up and is evident in such areas as dressing, feeding, playing, and establishing self-control.

Toddlers are developing skills of independence, and these are evident in all areas of behavior. By 15 months children feed themselves, drink well from a covered cup, and manage a spoon with considerable spilling. By 24 months they use a spoon well and by 36 months may be using a fork. Between ages 2 and 3 years they eat with the family and like to help with chores such as setting the table or removing dishes from the dishwasher. However, they lack table manners and may find it difficult to sit through the family’s entire meal.

In dressing toddlers also demonstrate strides in independence. The 15-month-old child helps by putting the arm or foot out for dressing and pulls shoes and socks off. The 18-month-old child removes gloves, helps with pullover shirts, and may be able to unzip. By 2 years of age the toddler removes most articles of clothing and puts on socks, shoes, and pants without regard to right or left and back or front. Help is still needed to fasten clothes.

Toddlers also begin to develop concern for the feelings of others and an understanding of how adult expectations for behavior apply to specific situations (e.g., causing a sibling to cry while playing rough). As parents foster their understanding, they are able to develop control. Age-appropriate discipline contributes to healthy social and emotional development. Positive reinforcement, redirecting, and time-out are appropriate for most toddlers. Social and emotional problems can develop in the youngest children. Early screening and intervention promote more positive developmental outcomes as the young child grows and develops.


Play magnifies toddlers’ physical and psychosocial development. Interaction with people becomes increasingly important. The solitary play of infancy progresses to parallel play (i.e., toddler play alongside, not with, other children). Although sensorimotor play is still prominent, there is much less emphasis on the exclusive use of one sensory modality. Toddlers inspect toys, talk to toys, test toys’ strength and durability, and invent several uses for toys. Imitation is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of play and enriches children’s opportunity to engage in fantasy. With less emphasis on gender-stereotyped toys, play objects such as dolls, carriages, dollhouses, balls, dishes, cooking utensils, child-size furniture, trucks, and dress-up clothes are suitable for both genders (Fig. 32-4); however, boys may be more interested than girls in activities related to trucks, trailers, action figures, and building blocks, and girls may prefer doll-related activities.

Increased locomotive skills make push-pull toys, straddle trucks or cycles, a small gym and slide, balls of various sizes, and riding toys appropriate for energetic toddlers. Finger paints; thick crayons; chalk; blackboard; paper; and puzzles with large, simple pieces use toddlers’ developing fine motor skills. Interlocking blocks in various sizes and shapes provide hours of fun and during later years are useful objects for creative and imaginative play. The most educational toy is the one that fosters the interaction of an adult with a child in supportive, unconditional play. Toys should not be substitutes for the attention of devoted caregivers, but they can enhance these interactions (Glassy, Romano, and AAP Committee on Early Childhood, 2003). Parents and other providers are encouraged to allow children to play with a variety of simple toys that foster creative thinking (e.g., blocks, dolls, and clay) rather than passive toys that the child observes (battery-operated or mechanical). Active play time should also be encouraged over the use of computer or video games, which are more passive (Ginsburg and AAP Committee on Communications, 2007).

Certain aspects of play are related to emerging linguistic abilities. Talking is a form of play for toddlers, who enjoy musical toys such as age-appropriate compact disk (CD) players, “talking” dolls and animals, and toy telephones. Children’s television programs are appropriate for some children over 2 years of age who learn to associate words with visual images. However, total media time should be limited to 1 hour or less of quality programming per day. Parents are encouraged to allow the child to engage in unstructured playtime, which is considered much more beneficial than any electronic media exposure (AAP Council on Communications and Media, 2011). Toddlers also enjoy “reading” stories from a picture book and imitating the sounds of animals.

Tactile play is also important for exploring toddlers. Water toys, a sandbox with a pail and shovel, finger paints, soap bubbles, and clay provide excellent opportunities for creative and manipulative recreation. Adults sometimes forget the fascination of feeling textures such as slippery cream, mud, or pudding; catching air bubbles; squeezing and reshaping clay; or smearing paints. These types of unstructured activities are as important as educational play to allow children the freedom of expression.

Selection of appropriate toys must involve safety factors, especially in relation to size and sturdiness. The oral activity of toddlers puts them at risk for aspirating small objects and ingesting toxic substances. Parents need to be especially vigilant of toys played with in other children’s homes and those of older siblings. Toys are a potential source of serious bodily damage to toddlers, who may have the physical strength to manipulate them but not the knowledge to appreciate their danger (Stephenson, 2005). Government agencies do not inspect and police all toys on the market. Therefore adults who purchase play equipment, supervise purchases, or allow children to use play equipment need to evaluate its safety, including toys that are gifts or those that are purchased by the children themselves. Adults should also be alert to notices of toys determined to be defective and recalled by the manufacturers. Parents and health care workers can obtain information on a variety of recalled products and report potentially dangerous toys and child products to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission* or, in Canada, the Canadian Toy Testing Council. Printable tips on toy safety are also available from Safe Kids Worldwide (

Table 32-1 summarizes the major features of growth and development for the age-groups of 15, 18, 24, and 30 months.

TABLE 32-1


15 Steady growth in height and weight
Head circumference 48 cm (19 inches)
Weight 11 kg (24 lbs)
Height 78.7 cm (31 inches)
Walks without help (usually since age 13 mo)
Creeps up stairs
Kneels without support
Cannot walk around corners or stop suddenly without losing balance
Cannot throw ball without falling
Runs clumsily; falls often
Constantly casting objects to floor
Builds tower of two cubes
Holds two cubes in one hand
Releases pellet into narrow-necked bottle
Scribbles spontaneously
Uses cup well but rotates spoon before it reaches mouth
Able to identify geometric forms; places round object into appropriate hole
Binocular vision well developed
Displays intense and prolonged interest in pictures
Uses expressive jargon
Says four to six words, including names
“Asks” for objects by pointing
Understands simple commands
May use head-shaking gesture to denote “no”
Uses “no” even while agreeing to the request
Uses common repetitive gestures such as putting cup to mouth when empty
Tolerates some separation from parent
Less likely to fear strangers
Beginning to imitate parents such as cleaning house (sweeping, dusting), folding clothes
May discard bottle
Kisses and hugs parents; may kiss pictures in a book
18 Picky eater from decreased growth needs
Anterior fontanel closed
Physiologically able to control sphincters
Assumes standing position without support
Walks up stairs with one hand held
Pulls and pushes toys
Jumps in place with both feet
Seats self on chair
Throws ball overhand without falling
Builds tower of three or four cubes
Release, prehension, and reach well developed
Turns pages in book two or three at a time
In drawing makes stroke imitatively
Manages spoon without rotation
  Says 10 or more words
Points to common object such as shoe or ball and to two or three body parts
Forms word combinations
Forms gesture-word combinations
Forms gesture-gesture combinations
Expresses emotions; has temper tantrums
Great imitator (domestic mimicry)
Takes off gloves, socks, and shoes and unzips
Temper tantrums may be more evident
Beginning awareness of ownership (“my toy”)
May develop dependence on transitional objects such as “security blanket”
24 Head circumference 49-50 cm (19.3-20 inches)
Chest circumference exceeds head circumference
Lateral diameter of chest exceeds anteroposterior diameter
Usual weight gain of 1.8-2.7 kg (4-6 lbs)
Usual gain in height of 10-12.5 cm (4-5 inches)
Adult height approximately double height at 2 years of age
May have achieved readiness for beginning daytime control of bowel and bladder
Primary dentition of 16 teeth
Goes up and down stairs alone with two feet on each step
Runs fairly well, with wide stance
Picks up object without falling
Kicks ball forward without overbalancing
Builds tower of six or seven cubes
Aligns two or more cubes like a train
Turns pages of book one at a time
In drawing imitates vertical and circular strokes
Turns doorknob; unscrews lid
Accommodation well developed
In geometric discrimination able to insert square block into oblong space
Has vocabulary of approximately 300 words
Uses two- or three-word phrases
Uses pronouns “I,” “me,” “you”
Understands directional commands
Gives first name; refers to self by name
Verbalizes need for toileting, food, or drink
Talks incessantly
Stage of parallel play
Has sustained attention span
Temper tantrums decreasing
Pulls people to show them something
Increased independence from parent
Dresses self in simple clothing
Develops visual recognition and verbal self-reference (“Me big”)
30 Birth weight quadrupled
Primary dentition (20 teeth) completed (30-33 months)
May have daytime bowel and bladder control
Jumps with both feet
Jumps from chair or step
Stands on one foot momentarily
Takes a few steps on tiptoe
Builds tower of eight cubes
Adds chimney to train of cubes
Good hand-finger coordination; holds crayon with fingers rather than fist
Moves fingers independently
In drawing imitates vertical and horizontal strokes; makes two or more strokes for cross
  Gives first and last name
Refers to self by appropriate pronoun
Uses plurals
Names one color
Separates more easily from parent
In play helps put things away; can carry breakable objects; pushes with good steering
Begins to notice gender differences; knows own gender
May attend to toilet needs without help except for wiping
Emotions expand to include pride, shame, guilt, embarrassment


Coping with Concerns Related to Normal Growth and Development

Toilet Training

One of the major tasks of toddlerhood is toilet training. Anticipatory guidance and clinical intervention for families surrounding toilet training should begin during routine well-child visits before the child’s developmental readiness to toilet train. Preparation and education reveal and allay misconceptions; lead to the development of appropriate expectations; and provide information, guidance, and support to parents for managing this potentially frustrating process.

Voluntary control of the anal and urethral sphincters is achieved sometime after the child is walking, probably between ages 18 and 24 months. However, complex psychophysiologic factors are required for readiness. The child must be able to recognize the urge to let go and hold on and communicate this sensation to the parent. In addition, some motivation is probably involved in the desire to please the parent by holding on rather than pleasing oneself by letting go. Cultural beliefs may also affect the age at which children demonstrate readiness (Feigelman, 2011).

Schmitt (2004) notes that comparative studies over the past 5 decades indicate that children in the 1990s in the United States were toilet trained at a later age (18 months in the 1960s versus 36 months in the 1990s); one possible contributing factor is the availability and convenience of disposable diapers. Another study found that the child’s average age at initiation of toilet training was 20.6 months (Horn, Brenner, Rao, et al., 2006).

Five markers signal a child’s readiness to toilet train: bladder readiness, bowel readiness, cognitive readiness, motor readiness, and psychologic readiness (Schmitt, 2004). According to some experts, physiologic and psychologic readiness is not complete until ages 22 to 30 months (Schum, Kolb, McAuliffe, et al., 2002); however, Schmitt (2004) emphasizes that parents should begin preparing their children for toilet training earlier than 30 months. By this time children have mastered most essential gross motor skills, can communicate intelligibly, are in less conflict with their parents in terms of self-assertion and negativism, and are aware of the ability to control the body and please their parents. Both the AAP and the Canadian Paediatric Society recommend starting toilet training by 18 months of age and suggest that the child must be interested in the process (Kiddoo, 2012). There is no universal right age to begin toilet training or an absolute deadline to complete it. An important role for the nurse is to help parents identify the readiness signs in their children (see Guidelines box).* On average girls are developmentally ready to begin toilet training 2 to 2½ months before boys (Schum, Kolb, McAuliffe, et al., 2002).

Nighttime bladder control normally takes several months to years after daytime training begins. This is because the sleep cycle needs to mature so the child can awake in time to urinate. Feigelman (2011) indicates that bed-wetting is normal in girls up to age 4 years and boys up to age 5 years. Few children have night-wetting episodes after daytime dryness is totally achieved; however, children who do not have nighttime dryness by the age of 6 years are likely to require intervention (Mercer, 2003).

Bowel training is usually accomplished before bladder training because of its greater regularity and predictability. The sensation for defecation is stronger than that for urination and easier for children to recognize. A well-balanced diet that includes dietary fiber helps keep stool soft and supports the development and maintenance of regular bowel movements.

A number of techniques are helpful when initiating training, and cultural differences should be considered. In the United States some of the options recommended by practitioners include the Brazelton child-oriented approach, the AAP guidelines (which are similar to Brazelton method), Dr. Spock’s training method, and the intensive “toilet-training-in-a-day” (operant conditioning) approach by Azrin and Foxx (Choby and George, 2008). An extensive study and review by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality in 2006 (Klassen, Kiddoo, Lang, et al., 2006) concluded that the child-oriented method and the Azrin and Foxx method were effective at toilet training healthy children (Choby and George, 2008). Another method emerging in the literature involves early assisted toilet training of infants around 2 to 3 weeks of age, but there are no studies assessing this method (Kiddoo, 2012). The following discussion of toilet training methods includes suggestions from the child-oriented approach.

Parents should begin the readiness phase of toilet training by teaching the child about how the body functions in relation to voiding and having a stool. Schmitt (2004) suggests that parents talk about how adults and animals perform such functions on a routine basis. Another suggestion is to make toilet training as easy and simple as possible. Important considerations are the selection of the child’s clothing and the potty chair or use of the toilet. A freestanding potty chair allows children a feeling of security (Fig. 32-5, A). Planting the feet firmly on the floor also facilitates defecation. Another option is a portable seat attached to the regular toilet, which may ease the transition from potty chair to regular toilet. Placing a small bench under the feet helps stabilize the child’s position. It is probably best to keep the potty in the bathroom and let the child observe the excreta being flushed down the toilet to associate these activities with usual practices. If a potty chair is not available, having the child sit facing the toilet tank provides added support (Fig. 32-5, B). Practice sessions should be limited to 5 to 8 minutes; a parent should stay with the child, practicing sanitary habits after every session. Children should be praised for cooperative behavior and successful evacuation. Dressing children in easily removed clothing; using training pants, “pull-on” diapers, or underwear; and encouraging imitation by watching others are other helpful suggestions.

When the child begins to experience regular daytime dryness, parents may experiment with underwear during the day. Daytime accidents are common, particularly during periods of intense activity. Young children become so engrossed in play activity that, if they are not reminded, they will wait until it is too late to reach the bathroom. Therefore frequent reminders and trips to the toilet are necessary. Parents often forget to plan ahead when their toddlers are being toilet trained; before trips outside the house it is important to remind children to at least try to urinate to decrease the chance of needing to use the toilet while the car is stuck in traffic.

As the child masters each step of toileting (discussion, undressing, going, wiping, dressing, flushing, and hand washing), he or she gains a sense of accomplishment that parents should reinforce. If the parent-child relationship becomes strained, both may need a break to focus on enjoyable activities together. Regression may coincide with a stressful family situation or the child being pushed too hard and too fast. It is a normal part of toilet training and does not mean failure but should be viewed as a temporary setback to a more comfortable place for the child.

Day care providers also play a role in the support and education of parents regarding toilet training practices. It is important for parents to inform all caregivers of their individual family values and the child’s specific needs when planning for training away from home. Ensuring consistency in care of toddlers and healthy practices in a sanitary environment allow for safe and effective toilet practices in all settings.

Sibling Rivalry

The natural jealousy and resentment of children to a new child in the family is referred to as sibling rivalry. The arrival of a new infant represents a crisis for even the best-prepared toddlers. It is not the infant that toddlers resent but the changes that this additional sibling produces, especially the separation from mother during the birth. The parents now share their love and attention with someone else, the usual routine is disrupted, and toddlers may lose their crib or room, all at a time when they thought they were in control of their world. Sibling rivalry tends to be most pronounced in the firstborn, who experiences dethronement (i.e., loss of sole parental attention). It also seems to be most difficult for young children, particularly in terms of mother-child interaction.

Preparation of children for the birth of a sibling is individual, but age dictates some important considerations. Time for toddlers is a vague concept. Tomorrow could be yesterday or next week, and a month from now could be never. Preparing children too soon for the birth may lessen their interest by the time the event occurs. A good time to start talking about the new baby is when the toddler becomes aware of the pregnancy and the changes taking place in the home in anticipation of the new member.

Toddlers need to have a realistic idea of what the newborn will be like. Telling them that a new playmate will come home soon sets up unrealistic expectations. Rather parents should stress the activities that will take place when the baby arrives home such as diapering, bottle-feeding or breastfeeding, bathing, and dressing. At the same time parents should emphasize which routines will stay the same such as reading stories or going to the park. The disruption of the toddler’s routine is significant but can be restored with some effort by the parents. It may be helpful for the father to spend more quality time with the toddler in the evening in anticipation of the mother’s time being occupied with the new baby. If toddlers have had no contact with an infant, it is a good idea to introduce them to one if feasible.

A new sibling in the home is stressful; thus any additional stresses for the toddler should be avoided or minimized. For example, moving the toddler to a regular bed or a different room should be done well in advance of the infant’s arrival.

Pregnancy is an abstraction for toddlers. They need concrete illustrations of how the baby is growing inside the mother. It is an excellent opportunity for introducing aspects of reproduction and sexuality. Seeing simple pictures of the uterus and fetus and feeling the fetus move help the child feel involved in the experience (see Fig. 8-3). Children also benefit from classes for siblings that may be part of prenatal sessions (see Fig. 8-4).

When the newborn arrives, toddlers keenly feel the changed focus of attention. Visitors may initiate problems when they inadvertently shower the infant with attention and presents while neglecting the older child. Parents can minimize this by alerting visitors to the toddler’s needs and including the child in the visits as much as possible. The toddler can also help with the care of the newborn by getting diapers and doing other small tasks (Fig. 32-6).

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Sep 16, 2016 | Posted by in NURSING | Comments Off on The Toddler and Family

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