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Child development: the first five years

0-5 years

The first five years of a child’s life are critical for development. The experiences children have in these years help shape the adults they will become. More than anything else, your relationship with your child shapes the way your child learns and develops.

About early child development

Development is the term used to describe the changes in your child’s physical growth, as well as her ability to learn the social, emotional, behaviour, thinking and communication skills she needs for life. All of these areas are linked, and each depends on and influences the others.

In the first five years of life, your child’s brain develops more and faster than at any other time in his life. Your child’s early experiences – the things he sees, hears, touches, smells and tastes – stimulate his brain, creating millions of connections. This is when the foundations for learning, health and behaviour throughout life are laid down.

Babies are born ready to learn, and their brains develop through use. So your child needs a stimulating environment with lots of different activities that give her plenty of ways to play and learn, and lots of chances to practise what she’s learning.  

Relationships: the foundation for child development

Children’s relationships affect all areas and stages of their development.

This is because relationships are experiences. In fact, relationships are the most important experiences in your child’s environment because they teach him the most about the world around him. They also shape the way he sees the world.

Through relationships, your child learns whether the world is safe and secure, whether she’s loved, who loves her, what happens when she cries, laughs or makes a face – and much more. Your child also learns by seeing relationships between other people – for example, how you behave towards your partner, and how your partner behaves towards you. This learning is the basis for the development of your child’s communication, behaviour, social and other skills.

Your child’s most important relationships are with you, other family members and carers, including early childhood educators.

A loving, nurturing relationship helps you and your child learn a little more about each other every day. As your child grows and develops, his needs will change. You’ll learn more about what he needs and how you can meet these needs.

Play: how child development happens

In the early years, your child’s main way of learning and developing is through play.

Play is fun for your child and gives her an opportunity to explore, observe, experiment, solve problems and learn from her mistakes. She’ll need your support and encouragement to do this. But it’s important to try to find a balance between helping her and letting her make mistakes, because finding out for herself about how the world works is a big part of learning.

Lots of time spent playing, talking, listening and interacting with you helps your child learn the skills he needs for life. These skills include communicating, thinking, solving problems, moving and being with other people and children.

Play is a great relationship builder. Spending time playing with your child sends a simple message – you are important to me. This message helps your child learn about who she is and where she fits in the world.

Other things that shape child development

Things like healthy eating, physical activity, health and the neighbourhood you live in also have a big impact on your child’s wellbeing and development.

You have some control over some of these things – for example, what your child eats and how much activity he does. But you might have less control over things like health.

Healthy eating
Healthy food gives your child the energy and nutrients she needs to grow and develop. It helps develop her sense of taste. And healthy family food and eating patterns in the early years can set up healthy eating habits for life. 

Your child learns about food choices from you, so the best way to help your child develop healthy eating habits is to let him see you preparing, eating and enjoying healthy food yourself. 

Physical activity
Being physically active gets your child moving. It develops her motor skills, helps her think and gives her an opportunity to explore her world. So your child needs plenty of opportunities for active play, both inside and outside. And if you’re active yourself, your child is likely to follow your lead.

Health
Your child’s health can influence his development. All children get sick at some point – for example, with coughs and colds, earaches or gastroenteritis. These minor childhood illnesses generally won’t cause any long-term problems with development.

But chronic or long-term health conditions like diabetes, asthma, cystic fibrosis or cancer can affect your child’s development. If your child has a chronic health condition, it’s a good idea to talk with your GP, child and family health nurse or other medical specialist (for example, a paediatrician) about how this might affect her development.

Neighbourhood and local community
Your neighbourhood and local community influence your child’s development. For example, your child’s development is supported by positive relationships with friends and neighbours, and access to things like playgrounds, parks, shops and local services like child care, schools, health centres and libraries.

Developing at different rates

Children grow and develop at different rates.

Some parents worry about when their child will walk, and others worry about when their baby’s first teeth will appear. Most skills develop in the same order, but the age they happen might vary even for children in the same family.

It might help to remember that development is different for every child.

If you’re wondering about whether your child’s development is ‘normal’, it might also help to know that ‘normal’ varies a lot. For example, the normal age range for children to start walking is 8-18 months. So if your child isn’t walking at 14 months, that’s OK.

If you really feel that something isn’t quite right with your child’s development, trust your instinct. See your child and family health nurse or GP.

Being a parent

As a parent, you’re always learning. Every parent makes mistakes and learns through experience. It’s OK to feel confident about what you know. And it’s also OK to admit you don’t know and ask questions.

Your own physical and mental health is an important part of being a parent.But with all the focus on looking after a child or baby, lots of parents forget or run out of time to look after themselves. Looking after yourself will help you with the understanding, patience, imagination and energy you need to be a parent.

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Last updated or reviewed
06-02-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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