The cognitive development of an infant from objectivity to system building. Amber Pawlik

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The Cognitive Development of an Infant

Be sure to check out my book on raising an infant, The Lucky Mom: How to have a Happy Infant through Respect, Observation, and Understanding

For a very long time, ever since my interest in educating young children was ignited by reading books written by Maria Montessori, I wanted to know more about the intellectual development of an infant. The bulk of work done by Maria Montessori is for children 3 – 9 years old, not for infants. I would hear bits and pieces of advice for how to stimulate an infant, such as "infants like the color red," and want to know more. I didn't want just bits and pieces but a systematic overview of their intellectual development.

There were some books that I thought might be good such as Welcome to Your Child's Brain. I am usually disappointed in books like this. They are usually a hodge podge of "science" with random topics, such as "do video games develop hand-eye coordination?" They do not study the development of a child in a serious, comprehensive way, describing everything that matures from birth to adulthood.

However, in finding the book Wonder Weeks, written by Dutch scientists Hetty van de Rijt and Frans X. Plooij, I have found exactly what I was looking for and then some!

Wonder Weeks describes 10 predictable "leaps" that a child goes through from birth to 18 months. A leap is a time of cognitive growth. It is preceded by a fussy period but after the fussy period, the child has a new mental skill. The weeks described in the book (outlined below) are when the cognitive bursts happen. A few days or a few weeks before the leap is when the fussy period occurs.

The book gives very detailed descriptions of all things pertaining to the leap. For each leap (which I often call a "phase" or "stage"), the book describes what to expect during the preceding fussy phase, how to handle the child during the fussy phase, and how you (as a parent) may be feeling during the fussy phase. For the start of the leap, it describes what observable skills you will see your child developing, what the child's temperament will be, and games and activities you can do with your child.

If you sense that I am swooning over this book, it is because I am. This is exactly the correct approach to parenting and education: study the child. Children, like anything, are entities with an identity and should be studied and respected as such. The overarching guide when educating or parenting a child should be to understand the growth of a child and respond appropriately. The child should not be pushed to do something before they are ready, which results in frustration and other problems, nor should a window of opportunity be missed. 

Further, the book is dedicated to exactly what I would expect a book on the development of a human child to be—the cognitive development of the growing human brain. I appreciate books that describe the physical development of a child, and it is very important to care for a child's physical needs properly. However, the primary focus of raising a human child is the development of the mind.

Another great thing about Wonder Weeks is that it gives timestamped advice. Usually authors give advice without stating what age their advice applies to or they are very sloppy about giving the timestamps. Children go through very rapid changes and what applies to a newborn does not apply even to a 3-month-old. Not only does Wonder Weeks timestamp its advice, it is  the central point of the book. Each week is laid out, in perfect logical order, with more data and advice than a parent could ever ask for.

Finally, I am thrilled that this book so boldly says that these leaps are predictable down to one or two weeks. After I tell people I am keeping track of all expected milestones for child development as I read books on the topic, so many tell me, "You'll throw away all that research!" They believe that how a child grows is total chaos—that it cannot be predicted what will happen when.

It is true such development cannot be predicted down to the second or minute or even the day, but milestones still fall on a typical bell curve. Most data sets fall into a predictable distribution with most data points hovering around a center and less and less at either extreme end. Said another way: it can be predicted that a child will learn how to develop a particular skill at X +/- Y time. How big "Y" is describes how much variability there is. With the development of children, happily, there is not much variability, particularly when calculated from the due date not the birth date.

I cross-referenced the research found in Wonder Weeks with several other books: New First Three Years of Life by Burton L. White; Touchpoints—Birth to Three by T. Berry Dr. Brazelton ; and Beginning Montessori with Infants and Tots: Birth to 24 Months Old by Lisa Nolan. I picked both of these books because they give timestamped expected milestones for a growing infant.

New First Three Years of Life is a product of decades of research conducted in parents' homes. It is very comprehensive in describing cognitive development. The developments are divided into 7 phases starting with Phase I, birth to 6 weeks and ending with Phase VII, 24 to 36 months. I recommend reading this book. Some advice, in my opinion, is out of date, and there is much advice I disagree with, such as its enthusiastic recommendation to use a walker. I prefer Wonder Weeks especially because it describes fussy periods.

Touchpoints covers a broad range of topics but also describes growing cognitive abilities. Dr. Brazelton recognizes that there are fussy periods followed by cognitive bursts, which is what a "Touchpoint" is. Dr. Brazelton is credited with bringing awareness of these "cognitive growth spurts" to the mainstream. He even mentions his discussions with the authors of Wonder Weeks, though he says his findings were independently found.

The Beginning Montessori book begins with a timeline of development, then gives timestamped recommended activities from birth to 24 months. The Montessori Method, of which I am a huge fan, adopts the same principle as I describe above, which is to understand the natural development of the child and respond appropriately. The quote found at the beginning of the Beginning Montessori book is, "Children are not things to be molded, but are people to be unfolded."– Jess Lair.

The Leaps

This is the overview of the leaps according to Wonder Weeks. Following it is a comparison to the timelines outlined by Touchpoints and Beginning Montessori. The first entry, "Newborn" is not a "leap," but is included as a starting point.



I sectioned off the tables I made comparing Wonder Weeks to the other books and put them in Appendix A. I discuss relevant parts throughout this essay. To show how well they lined up, I include here only the chart comparing Wonder Weeks to New First Three Years of Life. The authors break up the growth periods in nearly identical ways and have nearly identical things to say about each.


The overall timelines outlined in all books line up pretty well. There is some slop, in particular at the older ages. One reason for variability is unsynchronized time. Wonder Weeks bases everything off of the due date, whereas the other books, as best I can tell, base the milestones from the birth date. Given the birth date is up to 2 weeks before or after the due date, this can cause ½ month of potential misalignment. Also, Wonder Weeks gives timestamps down to the week, while the other books usually give timestamps by the month or even every 3 months. This different scale naturally causes misalignment.

Fussy Periods

First, I want to touch on the fussy periods. These are not to be taken lightly! I put together a timeline of the expected fussy periods and made a pie chart. The fussy periods are a full 35%, and this was a somewhat conservative estimate!



I have on the chart the category of "Chaos." The first 6 weeks of life are not technically a fussy period but the first 6 weeks can hardly be considered a period of calm! Hence, I sectioned it out and labeled it Chaos.

Both Touchpoints and Beginning Montessori also outline various times when the child is known to be clingy, fussy, and have disrupted sleeps patterns. I plotted some of these fussy periods above, but not all. They are very similar to as described in Wonder Weeks.

As further evidence for fussy periods, I very randomly picked up the book What Do I Feed My Baby? I certainly wasn't expecting knowledge about fussy periods in this book! But it mentions that babies go through known fussy periods at the following weeks: 5, 8, 12, 17, 26, 36, 44, and 53. This lines up pretty well with Wonder Weeks! My experience is that the fussy period begins very mildly as much as 4 weeks before the known leap and the week before the actual leap is the most intense part of the fussy period. The weeks listed in What Do I Feed My Baby line up well with the very worst part of the fussy period.

The fussy periods are short and frequent at first. The first leaps happen about a month after each other, with a fussy period of about one day to one week preceding them. The later leaps are spread farther apart but the fussy periods are longer—two to four weeks.

Most fussy periods are marked by the same things: the child cries, is fussy, clings to his or her mom, and his or her feeding and sleep patterns are disrupted. You can assume for each leap described below that there is a fussy period that precedes it.

During these fussy times, many people close to my son kept saying he was teething. I do not think he was teething but rather was going through fussy periods. You can test if the problem is teething by pressing lightly on the child's gums. If the baby fusses, it is perhaps a tooth coming in. Months and months of on-again off-again fussiness is not teething—not that very first, most difficult tooth anyway. It is likely these now thankfully documented fussy periods that precede cognitive bursts.  Fussy periods of which, I believe you should respond to with love, understanding, extra cuddles, and a knowledge that they will be over, with a reward of new skills at the end. As far as teething, one day we noticed my son had a tooth. In the weeks that preceded it, we noticed no extra fussing.

Now, for the cognitive developments.



The Leaps

Me with my son the day after he was born

Leap of Objectivity ("Changing Sensations") – 5 weeks (1 month)

It fascinated me that up until 5 weeks of age (approximately one month), the child does not regard the external world as separate from himself. This is of course the foundation of a rational epistemology: that the world is external to oneself. What a violent discovery this must be! I can see why the leap involves a period of extreme fussiness. In my experience, this fussy period is the very, very worst one. Though shorter than the others (though it doesn't feel short), it is much more intense. It is also combined with the immature bodily system of a newborn, which causes its own fussiness, to make for what is usually the worst time for parents: around 5-6 weeks of age (after the due date not birth date).

After the fussy period is over, what the parent will notice is increasing curiosity in the world. The response at this age is still mostly to hold, caress, and rock the child, not stimulate the child. I personally am of the belief that the world is so new to the child at this point that there is no need for extra stimulation. 

Wonder Weeks calls this leap the leap of "Changing Sensations." I prefer to think of it as the leap of objectivity: when the child is aware of the world around them.

6 weeks after his due date, during this leap of objectivity. Such intensity!

Leap of Patterns – 8 weeks (2 months)

The next leap, at around 2 months, is the leap of "Patterns." To notice a pattern is to notice that two things are similar. A "pattern" such as a sewing pattern is a template to be used such that any article made from it is the same. Some things may change, such as in the example of the sewing pattern, the fabric used; but some characteristic remains the same.

A pattern that the child may notice is his feet. The two are similar looking. Not only are his feet similar to each other, he will notice that what is whizzing in front of his eye is similar to what was whizzing in front of them earlier (his feet). To acknowledge a pattern is to observe one entity and retain mentally what that entity is long enough such that when looking at another entity, one can compare enough detail about the two to identify that they are similar. Not a small feat for an 8-week old!

At 9 weeks, checking out his feet


Many of the leaps also coincide with a growth spurt in the baby's head circumference. You can tell in the picture above how big my son's melon was.

It is interesting that each leap has both a cognitive and physical element to it. When the child understands patterns, he can also start to hold his body in precise positions. For instance, he will start saying "uh, uh, uh" with his voice rhythmically and repetitively. This is a pattern that he creates with his voice. My son did this, and I would repeat this back to him, much to his delight. Or the child will practice posture with his body parts, such as holding his hands or feet in a specific position, another "pattern," or to think of it another way: a way to bring order to what used to be chaos.

Leap of Smooth Transitions – 12 Weeks (3 months)

The next leap, at 12 weeks (approximately 3 months), is "Smooth Transitions." A child can follow a change in something so as long as it is smooth. A smooth transition may be a difference in the volume of your voice, a change in body position, or a light getting dimmer. The corresponding physical development is the baby's movements become less jerky. They can survey more of a room. He or she will also start to change their own position, such as trying to sit upright.

The Montessori activities recommended at this age very much align with this cognitive burst. One is to slowly move an object in front of the child's eyes, left to right.

At this age, I again think the world is so new and filled with moving objects that artificial stimulation is not entirely necessary. What is more important is to recognize the limits of the child at a particular leap. At this leap, the child cannot appreciate/understand if transitions take place abruptly. As a caretaker, a proper response is to not move too quickly when handling or playing with a 3-month-old child.

If you favor stimulation, the book, New First Three Years of Life advocates some type of stimulation as early as 1 month, and outlines what kind of stimulation it recommends and when.

13 weeks, captivated by something hilarious

Leap of Events – 19 Weeks (4 months)

The next leap, at 19 weeks, a little over 4 months (with the fussy period happening before this, closer to 4 months exactly) is "Events." Before, to notice something was changing, it had to be changed gradually for the baby to comprehend it. The baby is now ready to understand changes if they are abrupt.

First, a note about the fussy period at 4 months: the infant sucks a lot, usually their finger. It is very easy for those around the child to interpret this as teething.

This leap sees an explosion of physical development—or so it feels like to parents, who were otherwise used to their child being stationary. The biggest is that the baby can now roll over. Rolling over is an "event" to an adult, i.e., one fluid act. To a baby, it is a series of acts. You will see your child first get up on their side, then contemplate what to do next, then lurch the rest of the way. It eventually becomes one fluid motion. The baby will become much more aggressive with toys, grabbing and shaking them. We, at one point, thought our son was choking Sophie the Giraffe. It is a good idea, at this age, to consider a bumper pad in the child's crib, as they can now roll into the sides. Mesh bumper pads are made, as to avoid the risk of SIDS. Also, don't leave the child unattended on a chair or couch!


19 weeks, more vigorously exploring toys


Touchpoints describes how a 5-month old baby loves to stand up supported. My son, 20 weeks (almost 5 months) from the due date and over 5 months from his birth date, standing up supported with the aid of a walker wagon:

Leap of Relationships – 26 weeks (6 months)

Week 26, precisely 6 months, is the leap of Relationships.

First, I want to mention something about the fussy period for this leap. In this fussy period (which precedes the leap at 26 weeks, thus is a little after 5 months), the baby may become shy around strangers. My son did, with large crowds of people anyway. I would tell people this and it was clear that they didn't like to hear it. I would tell the story of how we went to a BBQ and when a large crowd of people gathered near our table, our son became upset. One lady told me, "It's because he wanted the BBQ!" Another lady told me, "My daughter was always outgoing!" It is clear that any sign of introversion is frowned upon—even in a five-month-old.

Dr. Brazelton says in Touchpoints, regarding thumb sucking, "If you want to set a stubborn pattern in a child, interrupt it at a time when he needs solace. He'll only hold on to it harder." I propose the same thing would happen with shyness around strangers. If you try to push the child to accept strangers, what would otherwise be a transient stage will become a permanent trait. Being shy around strangers—when a child is only 5 months old!—is not a sign of lack of self-confidence. This is a (now) well-documented stage. Five-month-old children are allowed to be shy around strangers. 

After the fussy phase, in this leap, the child learns how objects relate to one another. To understand the relationship between two things, he or she needs at least two objects to contemplate. The baby will use his two favorite objects: himself and mommy. The most noticeable relationship is how close or far away mommy is.

At this leap, I would play a game where I would wait at the bottom of the stairs while my husband carried our son up the stairs. I would then walk up the stairs and when I reached the top, I would come in for a kiss. My son squealed with laughter at me doing this. Wonder Weeks describes laughter as a sign you hit just the right note with your child—giving them the correct stimulation for the phase of learning they are at.

At this age, babies can understand that things are on, in, beside, under, etc., other things. Babies will also like to play peek-a-boo starting at this age—the adult is behind something. This aligns well with statements made in the Beginning Montessori book, which recommends peek-a-boo games at 6 months of age.

At 6 months, a very classic infant Montessori activity of the treasure basket is introduced. A basket (or box) is filled with toys for the child. The basket is placed in the room(s) that the infant plays in. The infant can explore the objects at his or her own will. The toys are rotated routinely.

As with the other leaps, mobility milestones accompany the intellectual ones. This leap sees yet another explosion of mobility development. When I first read about the new things my son would do in the coming weeks, I would think "Surely he won't be doing that for quite some time." Then, a few days or weeks later, he is doing exactly what I read he would do! It is amazing to watch how rapidly children develop.

In this leap, the baby will start to sit up on his own (from lying), probably crawl, take things off of tables or shelves, pull himself up, stand without support, walk when supported—and toward the very end of the leap, may even walk unsupported. All of these are related to "relationships." Many involve the ability to balance, which is something that understanding distance is crucial for. I once watched my son look at an object my husband was holding and he was so clearly trying to judge its distance from him. He would swipe at it and he eventually swiped just right as to get the object.

As the child understands relationships, he or she will love to crawl under something or through something. I would laugh when my son crawled under the foot rest of the recliner I usually sit in. An infant climber or "obstacle course" for infants are good toys for this age. 

Given this explosion in mobility development and desire to pull up or grab things above them, it is a good idea to baby proof before this stage.

New First Years of Life says that, with aggressive stimulation, a child as early as 3.5 months can reach for an object; otherwise they will do this around 6 months. The book itself however says that if a child can do this, it is not of much benefit to the child.

One skill that is possible at this age is introducing solid foods—and the baby can feed themselves. In Baby Led Weaning, a method of introducing solids foods is proposed in which jar food is skipped altogether and the baby is introduced to whole, solid foods from the start. The book describes that you can introduce whole foods when the baby is capable of sitting up, grabbing objects, and shows an interest in food, which is usually around 6-7 months. This is related to this leap of relationships (26 weeks or 6 months) when the baby learns how to balance himself, thus can learn how to sit up, and how to judge distance, thus can grab objects such as food.

Touchpoints describes how at this age, around 7 months, the baby will resist being fed and instead wants control over the process. Touchpoints advises to still externally feed the baby but to let the baby explore instead of forcing the food when battles erupt. I am of the belief you should not try to externally feed the child in the first place. Let the baby feed him or herself. Touchpoints advises that safe finger foods can be introduced at this age.

Beginning Montessori says there is a window of opportunity to introduce finger foods from 7-12 months. If missed, introducing finger foods will be difficult.

We followed this method of feeding a baby and we were thrilled with it!

At 27 weeks, eating steamed broccoli

Especially at these older ages, where the child is actively working on skills like standing, I believe that understanding these leaps are key to fostering happiness in the child. When they are first born, to have a happy child, it is a matter of tending to their needs appropriately. By 6 months, when their skills are developing at the speed of light, contentment comes not just from their basic needs being taken care of, but mastery over newly forming skills. A child who wants to do something, such as stand, but is not given the opportunity, will become frustrated. As noted earlier in this book, this—giving your child engaging activities—is the most important thing you can do so they do not become "spoiled," where they have a nagging, whining cry for attention.

One way to look at the leaps so far is when the infant understood an objective reality and patterns, he was starting to understand nouns. With smooth transitions and events, he understood verbs. In this leap of relationship, the infant understands prepositions. I propose that up to this age, this understanding of the world is automatic. They are simple biological developments that the child goes through. They are the building blocks for his future use in understanding the world in the way that humans, and humans only, can do. The next leaps are radically different.

Leap of Categories – 37 weeks (8.5 months)

35 weeks, a fussy period, clinging to my legs. See, the fussy periods aren't so bad!


In the next leap, at week 37 (8.5 months), there is a radical jump in cognitive development. It is The World of Categories in which the infant starts to develop concepts about the world—something that requires the infant's active participation. I consider this to be the child's epistemological birth.

From Wonder Weeks about The World of Categories:

[The baby] can now discover the meaning of the word "horse." He can learn that every horse falls into this category, whether it is brown, white, or spotted; whether the horse is out in a field, in a stable, in a photograph, in a painting, or in a picture book; whether it is a clay horse or a live horse. It is still a horse.

Understanding epistemology—the study of how we understand the world around us (i.e., gain knowledge)—is very beneficial, if not crucial, in understanding how to foster the thinking mind of a child. The central debate of epistemology revolves around concepts, which are described beautifully by the Wonder Weeks' authors above as "categories." I discuss epistemology, and how it relates to the child, in my next article, "On Epistemology."

Concept formation (categorizing the vast array of objects around us) is not intuitive. There is a process involved. As a process, it can go very well or very poorly. This is something that parents, who are given the enormous responsibility of fostering the cognitive development of their child, should regard as one of their most important parental responsibilities. This is the first age where their influence is crucial.

The importance of parental involvement at this age is driven home by New First Three Years of Life. Dr. White writes about the first 8 months of life:

Reports from many parts of the world indicate that most children, even when raised under substandard conditions, do quite well educationally during their first eight months of life. Neither the child who will achieve superbly nor the one who will be seriously behind by the first grade seem to show any special qualities during the first year of life.

At 8 months, which coincides well with this wonder week at 8.5 months, Dr. White says:

Whereas today most families in this country get their babies through the first six to eight months of life reasonably well developed, I have come to the conclusion that relatively few families—perhaps no more than one in ten—manage to get their children through the period from eight to thirty six months as well educated and developed as they can and should be. [Emphasis mine]

To respond properly at this age, Dr. White mostly encourages parents to let the child explore a lot. He discusses a wide variety of toys and if children seem to respond to them or not. His conclusion is much in alignment with Montessori principles:

When very young infants are provided with an environment that offers them the opportunity to practice emerging skills, they become more interested in their environment, more alert, and more cheerful. In fact, a basic principle of good child-rearing, especially during the first years, seems to be that you should design your child's world so that his day is rich with options for activities that relate to his rapidly shifting interests and abilities.

The opposite of letting a child explore is putting them in a playpen with just a few toys for hours; strapping them in a swing or high chair for a long time; hovering over them and telling them "no!" constantly; letting an electronic toy or the TV entertain them. A child is going to be more interested in "real" things than toys—things mom and dad use. Dr. White fully encourages you to section off dangerous things in your house, like household cleaners, but to let your child play with things like pots and pans.

My son at this age could be described as "John the Destroyer." He would not sit still or even stay in one room for very long. It was a tad exhausting to follow him everywhere. Any tower that was built got knocked over instantly. I was more than pleased however with an unusual compliment I got several times: that he was capable of entertaining himself.


37 weeks. I had a hard time getting him to sit still for a picture


It was not in this leap but was in a later leap when I showed my son how I put on my socks. He immediately took his own socks off and tried putting them on. I was thrilled to know that "sock" to him was an actual abstract concept—he was not limited to thinking "socks" constituted only of the pair on his feet. Children are abstract thinkers starting at a very young age.

As this is the age that concept formation begins, I submit that it is at this age (8.5 months) that Montessori principles (of learning) should be kept in mind. In Beginning Montessori, the author describes what she says is "the essence of Montessori sensory materials"—that the set of materials being used to teach a particular concept should be exactly identical except for the distinguishing characteristic of the concept being taught.

For instance, when working with nesting cups, which are different size cups that fit inside each other, use the same color cup so that the only difference between each is the length of their diameter. Thus, there is only one difference. Unfortunately, most commercial nesting cups are different colors. Measuring cups from the kitchen are an alternative.

You may have noticed that infants are drawn to anything unusual, such as a red button on an electronic device. This is a clue to how they learn something. To present a concept, make everything the same except the thing you want to teach, making that something "pop."

I made some materials at home to teach concepts in this fashion to my son. The set of materials I used frequently were magnets. I bought magnets that were the same size and shape but different colors. The beauty of magnets is I could, at will, arrange any pattern I wanted to teach. The simplest and thus likely most effective, pattern was 3 magnets with 2 identical colors and 1 different, such as, "Red-Red-Green."

When I would work with my son with these activities, I had no feedback at first if what I was doing was worthwhile. He was often captive but I had no way of reading if he understood any of it. When my son got to be closer to 2 years old, when he was talking a lot, the answer to my question, "is this worthwhile?" is "YES!" Those concepts I worked with him at a young age came very easily to him at an older age.

I would recommend doing many concept activities at this age. I liked the book The Encyclopedia of Infant and Toddlers Activities for Children Birth to 3: Written by Teachers for Teachers. This book had almost every activity in it that I found to be successful with my son. It had many concept activities in it. I would recommend focusing on activities that have relevance to daily life. For instance, concepts such as "up/down" (for when they want you to pick them up or put them down), "empty/full", and "on/off."

To teach any concept, I also found it was a good practice to become a "constant narrator." Before doing something, such as turning the light on, say, "On!"

I made it a point to name as many objects for him as I could beginning in this phase. Sometimes he would stare intently at what I was saying or doing; sometimes I did not get his attention; and very often he would bubble over with laughter. I noticed also that if other children were around, they would stop what they were doing and listen to me.

It is typically not recommended to read stories at this age. The story, which is an abstract idea, does not mean anything to the child. As far as looking at the book, based both on what I have read and my own observations, the baby is more interested in opening and closing the book than looking at the text or pictures. By pointing to objects that are within immediate sight, there is a connection made between the word and reality.

I would never recommend forcing a child to look at something he or she is not interested in. One of the conclusions drawn by Dr. White is to always show enthusiasm when a child bring an object to you and teach them things about the object that they have brought. When they bring an object to you, they are interested in learning about that thing at that time, which is that delicate window of opportunity to always be on the watch for.

Leap of Causality ("Sequences") – 46 weeks (10.5 months)

The leap at 37 weeks sets into motion a child's intellectual awareness. The rest of the leaps as described in Wonder Weeks all deal with an ability to manipulate the environment towards productive ends.

The World of Sequences occurs at 46 weeks, or 10.5 months. A sequence is a set of actions that must be executed to obtain a desired result. To put on your shoe, you may have to do all of the following: pick up the shoe, open it wide, slip it on, and then tie your shoe. At this age, the child grasps that some inputs are necessary for a desired output or, rather, now understands causality.

Just as in the first leap of objectivity, where the child first understands that there is an external world to him but can't identify much in it clearly, so in this leap the child understands that some cause is required to enact an effect but is not yet skilled at identifying which causes enact which effects. Wonder Weeks describes how this is another charming part of parenthood. For instance, your child may rub his or her socks against their feet, in an attempt to get them on.

Some of the activities your child may do at this age, outlined in Wonder Weeks, are point at objects, name objects, retrieve objects when asked, try to undress themselves, try to put two containers in each other, push a toy car around, among many others.


At 47 weeks, John figured out how to make the popcorn toy pop


Wonder Weeks says that at this age, the child only accepts that one cause can enact an effect. From the book: "Once he is of the opinion that he has mastered a particular sequence, it is 'fixed.' He will not accept it to be done in any other way and he may be quite stubborn if you try to change his mind." This is somewhat amusing—the age when a child will only accept that one way is the right way of doing something, even if wrong, is also the age when they think they have everything figured out. It is "toddler puberty."

My son's temperament at this leap changed dramatically. Instead of wanting to see all objects in every room all at once, he sat calmly and studied interesting objects. I once caught him with a container of oats. He had pried open the lid and was taking each little piece of oat out one by one!

The New First Three Years of Life recommends introducing knobbed puzzles at 14 months but I found they could be introduced at this age. The recommendation is to get a puzzle, like the one pictured below, where a puzzle piece with a knob fits into a corresponding slot. A circle is recommended as a first puzzle as no matter what orientation it is, it will fit. We got this for my son just slightly after his first birthday and he was able to do the circle puzzle right away.


53 weeks solving his first puzzle


After accomplishing this puzzle, the idea that everything had a place was clearly implanted in my son's brain. There were many other "puzzles" that he started to solve. One was putting his bottle into the cup holder on his tray. Another was fitting himself into his Bumbo seat, and he always started clapping after doing this—he was his own favorite puzzle piece!

In The New First Three Years of Life, the author talks about the importance of responding to your child's requests for attention or help appropriately at this age lest you get a "spoiled" child. Dr. White advises to watch for instances when the child is asking for help because 1) he has determine he can't handle himself; 2) when an adult is simply the easiest way to handle it; and 3)  when he is simply trying to get your attention. He says you respond leading to different, permanent personality traits in the child.

I personally think an easier solution to adopt is to, from the very beginning of a child's life, encourage them to solve problems on their own. In responding to my son's frustrations described above by Dr. White, I had a general philosophy to always encourage him to work out a problem by himself. I received an unusual compliment from daycare workers once that my son was very good at maneuvering around obstacles while pushing objects. I noticed that too but I thought it was just normal development. They said it was very unusual for any child of any age to do this.

I strongly credit the fact that I never moved obstacles out of his way. When he would face one and get somewhat frustrated, I would tell him, "You are facing an obstacle. There will be many in your life. You have to negotiate it." If he was really stuck on something, after a few moments, I would step in, but I always let him try to figure it out first. I describe this as a "Hands Tied Behind Your Back" or "Hands Off!" philosophy. It means talk a child through the problem—don't just let them flap in the wind— but don't physically step in and help.


51 weeks pushing a laundry basket through the door


I admit that I recoil in fear whenever an author talks about the problem of "spoiling" a child. Too often the person advocates denying a child food, drink, or sleep. I unfortunately have witnessed people denying a child these very fundamental, basic needs for the very reason of "not spoiling" a child. Thankfully, this is not Dr. White means—nor any respected medical professional that I have ever read. His advice of letting a child work problems out on their own as a remedy to a "spoiled" child makes even more sense when you think of what the world "spoiled" means, which is to attain some type of wealth without putting any effort into it. Teach your child to see work as a joy and you avoid a spoiled child.

Wonder Weeks describes that the child resists interference at this age and wants to do everything by himself. It also says this is the age when parents and many doctors think a child needs discipline. So the very age when they develop their independence and want to explore, the child is being told "no" constantly. The authors instead encourage parents to, instead of punishment or restrictions, consider that it is "just the age where they start asserting their independence." Based on my research on cognitive development, the child, while capable of understanding concepts at this age, is not yet capable of understanding right and wrong. Trying to enforce a code of right and wrong right now is futile.

To overcome the problem of a child's growing independence but also sparing your treasured household items, I am a firm believer in making the environment safe, putting all of the heavy lifting of "discipline" on the environment so the child can explore to his or her heart's content. Safety, when done right, encourages freedom and activity.

The New First Three years of life recommends minimal discipline starting around 9 months. Dr. White recommends the immobilization technique where an infant's arms are restrained for 10-15 seconds. This may be useful for behaviors such as pulling hair or taking eyeglasses off.

Touchpoints explicitly describes that at 9 months, the child understands causality. Touchpoints timestamps its advice at 9 months and 12 months so "10.5 months" is a bit lost. Taking 9 months to mean, "somewhere between 9 and 12 months," this timeline lines up with Wonder Weeks well.

The author of Touchpoints gives an example to explain this and future cognitive phases; that of how a child plays with a wind-up car/toy. At this age, which Touchpoints says is "just before one year old," the child will push the car to get it to move. This is exactly in line with Wonder Weeks

The Beginning Montessori book also timestamps its advice at 9 and 12 months so "10.5 months" again is lost. But in the 9 month activities are activities such as pulling a scarf out of a slot of a lidded can, placing spoons in a bowl, and asking the infant to retrieve simple objects. These all involve the infant manipulating the environment. None of them are particularly complicated, but they are first steps towards understanding that some inputs will achieve a desired output.

Leap of Programs – 55 weeks (12.5 months)

At the previous leap, the child had a vague understanding of causality. He or she believed that only one way could accomplish a particular goal. In the World of Programs, not many weeks later, his or her understanding of causality deepens. The child accepts that more than one way can enact an end and will start experimenting with many different ways. From Wonder Weeks: "The main characteristic of a program is that it has a goal but that the steps taken to accomplish it are flexible."

First I want to mention that for this fussy period, which starts at almost exactly one year of age or slightly before, the child may start to get jealous of other children. It may also come with temper tantrums. These behaviors are new to this fussy period. I again think they should be responded to with love and understanding, with a knowledge that they are perfectly predictable and part of normal growth, not naughty behaviors in need of discipline.

For all of the rest of the leaps—programs, principles, and systems—when the leap starts, the child is testing and experimenting with their new skills and will not master them until the end of the leap. In this leap of programs, the child is first starting to experiment with programs. He or she will not master them until the end. With the example of the wind-up car, Touchpoints describes that the child at 12 months (the start of this leap) may hand the car to his parent to wind it up. They will then examine the car to try to figure out how it was done. They aren't yet able to wind up the car.

In the last leap, the activities the child could do were inflexible and simple, involving usually only one step such as attempting to put a key in a keyhole, putting a ring on a rod, or pointing at objects. The activities they can do now after this leap are much more complex: getting a broom or duster to clean, putting objects back where they belong, dressing or undressing themselves, feeding or bathing their dolls, listening to short stories, among others. The child will watch their parents execute "programs" like dressing or doing the dishes. They will try a variety of ways to accomplish a similar goal.


56 weeks, putting two mega-blocks together


Here are some of the other things my son started doing in this leap.


Transferring balls from bowl to bowl, 59 weeks


Putting right lid on right pot, 59 weeks

He consistently put together like blocks together, 61 weeks


Learned how to use a fork, 63 weeks


When child is capable of understanding programs, I contend, is when they transition from infant to toddler. The main difference between an infant and a toddler is that a toddler expects and thrives on a predictable routine whereas a newborn has no awareness of predicting a future event. Therefore, with an infant, I am of the firm belief that everything should be on-demand, including feeding and sleeping. When the child is capable of understanding programs, they will expect things at certain times. They expect lunch after you go to the kitchen and grab something out of the refrigerator; they expect to be put to sleep after lunch; and so on. You will/may notice at this age that the child clearly understands what you are doing and what happens next. In my opinion, this is what qualifies them as "toddler."  

The skills learned in this leap are quite mechanical/logistical. The child is learning how to wind up a toy car or how to clean the floor. They are learning basic skills. They want to find out what works. The child applies the scientific method: trying one way and when it doesn’t work, try a different way. Or try a different way to see if it works better. Wonder Weeks describes how some gifted children behave at this leap:

Some children are exceptionally creative when it comes to inventing and trying out different ways to attain the same final goal. Gifted children can be particularly exhausting for their parents. They continually try to see if things can be done some other way. Whenever they fail or are forbidden to do something, they always look for another way around the problem or prohibition. It seems like a challenge to them never to do something the same way twice. They find simply repeating things boring.

Wonder Weeks describes this leap as setting the foundation for logic and describes it as "subordinate to principles and systems" (the next leaps). There is a certain mechanical aspect to this leap. I want to clarify though that this doesn't mean the skills developed in this leap are unimportant. Rather, the skills are hierarchal. Using football as an example, first you develop the basic skills of the game (programs), then you develop strategies (principles), then you masterfully apply strategies to particular situations (systems). Later cognitive abilities of creativity, intellectual independence, planning, judgment, etc., rest on this logical foundation and would be impotent without it. 

Wonder Weeks says this is an age to lay down some rules but only ones that the child understands. As they are capable of understanding programs, they may understand that mom must put all dishes in the dishwasher for her to be done. Not until then is mom free to do something with the child.

My own observation about my son at this age is that he always picked up similar objects such as to make a match. If he came into a room toddling with a shoe, he always had the other shoe with it, never just one. As such, I put together a box of matching objects for him to investigate. It was much to my delight that he consistently took matching objects out of the box!



A major difference in Touchpoints and Wonder Weeks is that Touchpoints says there is indeed a fussy period at this age, but it is brought on by the child's new ability to walk. With the ability to walk come all sorts of choices that the author argues spurs the cognitive burst. Touchpoints argues that a child who does not yet walk at 12 months remains somewhat calm for his or her parents. Wonder Weeks describes this leap as happening at 12 months regardless of whether the child is walking.

Touchpoints describes this age as being an age where there are temper tantrums and where there is a need for discipline. This lines up somewhat with Wonder Weeks which says during the fussy period there will be temper tantrums and a limited number of rules can start to be enforced. Touchpoints says it isn't until 15 months when the temper tantrums and need for discipline become intense.

Leap of Principles – 64 weeks (15 months)

Week 64 (15 months) is the leap of Principles. In this leap, the child begins to develop theories about how to do things, i.e., principles. They learn to adapt their newly formed skills from the leap of programs to new situations.

Each of these latter leaps start out with a new skill to be developed and towards the end, with much practice, it is better mastered. In the previous leap, after much testing, the child learned how to execute particular programs. In the wind-up car example from Touchpoints, in the previous leap, the child was learning how to wind up the car on their own and by this leap, they know how to do it.

At this new leap of principles, the child is good at perceiving programs. It is similar to when the child was in the leap of events, where every event was at first broken up into small events. Once they mastered each small event, larger events, such as rolling over, perceptually, became one fluid movement. Similarly, the toddler is now efficient at perceiving, creating, and evaluating programs; thinking about each as one whole, instead of broken up parts.

Efficient at understanding programs, your toddler will now start to think about what program to apply to what situation. Wonder Weeks describes that they are no longer "caught up" in what they are doing, but are actually thinking, judging, and evaluating what they are about to do.  From Wonder Weeks: "Your little one will think ahead, contemplate, consider the consequences of her actions, make plans, and evaluate them."

I knew this leap had started when my son picked up a random assortment of objects he had never come across before, including a bath toy in a cup shape, a cap of a shaving cream can, and a ping pong ball, and nestled them together on his first attempt.

In the last leap, I posted a picture of him solving a puzzle. In that last leap, he would solve it with a lot of trial and error. In this one, he would solve it on his first try, and it was clear he was "on top" of it; he knew what he was doing, every movement was deliberate. Here he is, at 71 weeks, pausing to look at 2 pieces of the puzzle, before placing them in the right slots on the puzzle board:


At this age, the child is no longer as caught up in the mechanics of executing an action, but they are now "caught up" in testing strategies. As with the previous leap, much experimenting will occur at this leap. As an example, my son at one point seemed to be testing the strategy of hitting. Except instead of hitting a person (usually, me) in one fluid motion, he would raise his arm, look at it, and then cautiously, deliberately, and slowly hit the person. In all honesty, it was quite hilarious!

This leap, I propose, is very similar to the leap of concepts, both in nature and importance. New First Years calls this, Phase VI (14 – 24 months), "make-or-break time." Touchpoints describe it as an "astonishing burst of new cognitive abilities."

The following is my argument, not from any other book: What concepts are to identifying things in reality (see "How Understanding Epistemology Can Make You and Your Child Smarter"); principles are to identifying the best methods to achieve a desired end. To develop a concept, a similar pattern among many objects is noticed and abstracted out (mentally). For instance, many chairs are noticed until a pattern among the chairs is noticed and abstracted out to develop the concept "chair," which can also be thought of a categorization. A principle is developed after watching many ways of doing something (successfully) and abstracting out the essentials (the pattern) of what made it work. After observing the success or lack thereof of certain towers that he or she has built, the child may develop the principle, "Put the big blocks on the bottom." The major advantage of concepts is that when concepts are learned, they allow a person to see and understand that concept much more quickly when encountered in the future. Similarly, developing principles allow a person to apply a strategy to new situations in a more efficient manner.

Without a set of strategies, every new instance of a particular problem is something new to be figured out. This ability to develop a theory of how things work, finding the essence of a solution not the rigid particulars, is what allows a person to "lift" a previous solution and apply it to a new situation—precisely what the child is practicing now. It is the ability to develop theories that allows intellectual flexibility—what makes the human mind more intelligent than a computer program.

Developing principles lays the ground work for the child, and humans, to learn, create, and build an infinite number of things. It is how humans understand systems otherwise outside of human perceptual grasp. By working with materials immediately available to them, a person can develop a principle and apply it elsewhere. For instance, Newton thought of the principle of gravity by using himself, a tree, and an apple. He then applied this principle to planetary systems.

The theories a child may develop vary greatly. Some may be "In order to build a tower of rings, I have to put the big ones on the bottom." Other theories are, "If I want a piece of candy, I have to ask Grandma, not Mom." This, where the child is able to think about and choose how he is going to behave in future situations, is the birth of the child's morality. At this age, the child hasn't formed their own morality yet but rather is testing the very concepts of right and wrong.

I will be the first to tell you that this leap was very difficult at times. The "testing" was relentless. My son clearly reveled in being naughty.

Before this leap, he often mimicked me by throwing away a baby wipe after I changed his diaper. In this leap of principles, he once went to throw away the wipe by opening the garbage lid and almost throwing the wipe in, but then gave me a sly smile and ran away from the garbage can, laughing hysterically. He really did not want to go to bed most nights, preferring to stay up with us. He became very possessive of toys, which can be very unpleasant to watch.

Several things mentioned by Wonder Weeks we noticed. He liked to experiment with the limits of his body. My husband nicknamed him Mr. Stuntman. At one point, he would frequently throw himself backwards off of the couch, much to our panic. Whenever my husband or I got up from our kitchen chair, he would race to climb on it, as he did here at 65 weeks:



He also loved small spaces. He would go into a closet and shut the door, laughing and dancing. He would put himself into cupboards and close the door. Wonder Weeks describes how all of this is them experimenting with the limits of their body. Here he is at 66 weeks underneath the kitchen table:



At this leap, he finally became interested in books. He would get a book and bring it to us to read to him, over and over again. I think he figured out we were so proud of his love of books that he would bring us book after book right before bedtime, which I think he was using as a stall tactic! It calmed me down a lot to read that a toddler's speech will not take off in this leap but rather in the next one, starting at 21 months.

We really enjoyed the children's book "Blue Hat, Green Hat" by Sandra Boynton at this age. In the book, some animals have some type of clothing on correctly but the turkey always has the clothing on wrong. It says "Oops!" for the turkey. Thus, "Blue hat, green hat, yellow hat, Oops!" My son would die laughing at the "Oops." It was a fun way to explore deviancy without any punishment at all.

I became nervous, given some of my son's naughty behavior, that I should be doing more in terms of "discipline." I was especially worried about how to approach discipline because at this age, just 15 months, is mostly pre-language. For instance, he would throw crayons and they would break. I did not want him to throw crayons. However, it was clear that he was not throwing them with malice but simply because it was fun. And it was also clear that explaining the idea of "It's OK to throw balls but not crayons" was too much for him at this age. Should I attempt to enforce such a nuanced rule as a matter of teaching respect? Or should I just put the crayons away?

There are so many controversial and hotly debated philosophies on how to discipline a child. What worried me the most were stern warnings from experts who say that if you don't discipline now, you will have a brat by the time they are 2 years old. I was deeply worried about this. I had a fairly easy going child and there was not much need for "discipline" in the traditional sense, which usually means spanking or time outs. But was I doing enough?

After much contemplation on this issue and being able to see what worked and what didn't as my son got older, I have come to some tried and true philosophies on discipline, which can and should be applied at this age.

I like to think of two different types of "discipline": one to get the child to stop doing undesirable things ("stop behavior") and the other to get the child to cooperate ("go behavior").

For "stop" behaviors, I really recommend the book Positive Discipline: The First Three Years: From Infant to Toddler--Laying the Foundation for Raising a Capable, Confident Child.

This book, Positive Discipline, is strongly against any kind of punitive discipline, including timeouts. The authors argue, compellingly, that you cannot make a child behave by making them feel bad about themselves. Instead, the authors recommend an approach of distraction and redirection. Discipline means teaching, and at this young age, which is pre-language, actions are better than words.

For my concern about throwing crayons, using this approach, I would take crayons away and give him ping pong balls, which were acceptable to throw. Indeed, the idea, as communicated through language, of "it is OK to throw balls but not crayons" was too much for him as a 15-month old, but showing him through this action of redirection, over and over, as many times as it takes, eventually conveys the message. Balloons are also a good distraction for children who like to throw things. Another idea I liked, which I will try with the next child, is to stack up plastic cups in a pyramid and encourage the child to roll the ball as to knock the balls over. This gets them used to the idea of aiming a ball.

Positive Discipline points out that very rarely, if ever, does a child do something intentionally naughty. I had always embraced this, but reading this caused me to reconsider approaches to behaviors I found egregious, such as hitting. Even this much undesired behavior is not done out of malice at this age, but perhaps because it seems like a fun game or the child is frustrated about something (and usually with good reason). As such, even for hitting, I used redirection. I would let him high five me or try to get him to do something else.

One of the most undesirable behaviors at this age is possessiveness of toys. This can cause uneasiness in parents, almost all of whom, I have found, instantly want to take the toy away from their kid and give it to the other kid, to show how agreeable they are. Personally, I did not do this. This is the first time your toddler recognizes they are a person and count; hence the possessiveness. What message does taking the toy away send? The New First Three Years of Life describes that children cannot be expected to take turns or play nicely with toys until 22 months of age, and really probably not until 30 months. My view on sharing toys is that a child should be able to play with a toy until they are done. Other children can be told they have to wait until that child is done. No one should ever forcibly take a toy from a child in the name of "sharing." Sharing should always be voluntary.

Also remember known fussy periods when dealing with your child's "naughtiness." At just 16.5 months the last fussy period begins, and it is a very intense and long one. I have noticed that, at this age, parents go into hyper-punish mode to stop the seeming naughty behavior. Again, I think fussy periods should be responded to with love and understanding.

How to react to seeming naughty behavior is largely rooted in how you view human nature: do you see humans as naturally sinful or good? If you see humans as sinful, you probably see naughty behaviors as something that need punished. I encourage you to instead see these "naughty" behaviors as a catalyst for better parenting. In my estimation, good parenting means keeping up with a child's growth and always providing age appropriate activities for them. This can be difficult to keep up with, because a child's interests shift rapidly. If every time a child was "naughty," parents thought to themselves "how can I better engage my child?" rather than "how can I punish them as to stop this behavior?" this world would be a different place!

This approach of redirection and distraction worked beautifully for us. It is easy and effective. I sometimes felt like I was cheating. But I do believe that, in this particular case, what is expedient in the short term is also best for the long term. Based on my observations, parents who used punitive discipline, even the "moderate" method of timeout, caused resistance in their children. The subjected child almost always has a strong physical reaction to it, and I have been told this sometimes even includes kicking, biting, and hitting. In my opinion, punitive discipline creates a new set of naughty behaviors that you have to deal with.

I found getting the child to stop doing undesirable things was relatively easy. What I had difficulty with was getting my child to cooperate ("Go" behaviors.) Towards this end, I found the most effective approach to be habit formation. Habit formation simply means that any behavior that you expect of your child, you should practice over and over again. It does require quite a bit of work, but it is well worth the investment.

What I especially had difficulty with was getting my child to cooperate with things I introduced at a later age (and by "later" I mean 20 months instead of 15 months). Anything I introduced at this young age of 15 months I found was easy to gain cooperation. So, I am encouraging you to think of any and every behavior you may want to instill starting now. Here are some to consider:

Teach your child to put their toys away after they are done playing with them. This is one of the most important lessons and will be the one that you most frequently work on. After one toy is used, it should be put away before getting another one.

Towards this end, it is important that the setup for putting toys away is easy for the child. I strongly recommend an open shelf. Below are two pictures of our shelving. On the top is the "before." It was closed drawers, as you would find in most stores for children's furniture. It was hard to put toys away. Toys simply piled on top of each other instead of being organized nicely. The bottom is the "after." It is shelving from Ikea that was meant for an entertainment center, not a toy shelf. Notice how the toys are on full display for the child. It is very easy to grab one and to put it back. This system allowed us to have toys on full display and to have a mostly clutter-free living space. I simply loved it.


At this age, putting a toy away is fun. It makes the child feel important. This is not just teaching them a skill that will help save your sanity later (though it definitely will), it is also teaching them to respect physical things and have a respect for orderliness. Just imagine your house being auto-cleaned because you instilled this good habit in your child at a young age. Yes it is possible! I did not think it was possible until my son entered a Montessori school at 18 months. After his second day, that night he voluntarily put his toys away! From then on, it was our policy.

Another good habit to start at this age is for them to wash their hands at appropriate times. My son's Montessori school insisted on hand washing before eating, after coming in from outside, and after diaper changes. After going to this school, my son never once got sick. For a 1 ½ year old to be around other 1-3 year olds all day and not get sick over several months is impressive to say the least. I strongly believe that a commitment to hand washing can effectively stop many illnesses.

We however had difficulty getting my son to cooperate with hand washing at home, which we introduced around 20 months. It was a bit unsettling to think that near complete strangers could get my son to wash his hands but I could not. But, after sticking with it for some time, my son eventually cooperated at home. So, my message to any parent struggling with this is to be firm, gentle, and persistent. What also seemed to help was using a 2-step stool instead of just a 1-step at home. We figured this out because one day, while asking him to wash his hands, my son wandered off to our closet, where we had a 2-step ladder intended for adults. He wanted to use this and not his one-step stool! When we got it out for him, he happily washed his hands. From that point forward, we had better luck with hand washing. We picked times to wash his hands and enforced it consistently. The message did eventually sink in.

For one of parents' biggest fears, a child running into the road, one of my favorite activities starting at this leap was to go for a walk with my son, where he walked on his own. I would walk at his pace and let him explore as much as he wanted with the one stipulation that he stay on the sidewalk. I would physically place him on the sidewalk if he strayed. He picked up on this very quickly and was very good at staying on the sidewalk. This hands down was the most effective thing I did to prevent him from running into the road.

I recommend also teaching your child to walk while holding your hand, when you ask them to. When you go out into public places, your child is not going to want to sit in a stroller all of the time. At least, mine didn't. You will want to let them walk around some. The problem is they will run like a terror through large crowds. If you can teach them to take your hand when you ask, you can let them walk without disrupting everyone else around you.

It was a great joy to me when, after I had worked with my son to do hold my hand, he would frequently hold his hand up to me, asking to walk hand in hand, seemingly just for the pleasure of it. I had much success in doing this when we would walk around the theme parks here in Orlando, FL. It is important though to be reasonable about how long they will hold your hand. At some point, they need to get circulation back in their arm.

Based on having a positive experience with it, I recommend letting your child throw garbage in the garbage. We would give my son some kind of paper product that was genuine garbage and ask him to throw it away. He would hold the piece of garbage with utmost pride, as if he was a ring bearer in a wedding; march to the garbage can; and proudly throw it away. Interestingly, we never, ever, had a problem with him throwing things away that he shouldn't. I think by showing him how to use it as it should be used, we effectively demystified this interesting object. Maria Montessori writes that discipline doesn't come from ordering a child to "sit still" but in getting them to move and act in ways that are proper. For instance, the children are involved in the maintenance of a garden and as such respect the plants, as opposed being told to not touch them. By letting our son use the garbage can, instead of telling him not to go near it, I think we did a similar thing. It reminds me a bit of how alcohol is illegal for people up to the age of 21, which turns it into a "forbidden fruit," and notoriously causes people under 21 to drink to excess should it become available to them.

I want to also mention the issue of taking shoes off when entering the house, only because it shows how not giving choice to a child is sometimes effective. When we would come in the door, despite protests and without giving choice, we would take my son’s shoes off. We would also take ours off to model it for him. Eventually he got so used to it, that he would sometimes come in from outside, run into the house, remember he had his shoes on, then come back to the front to wait for them to be taken off! He would also inform guests in our house that they had to take their shoes off, LOL.

Here are other things to consider working on now: brushing/washing their teeth at night (do this as early as possible); not touching the oven or the grill; putting a jacket on. Talk with your spouse or other caregivers as to get on the same page as to what behaviors are acceptable or not or what is expected. (It is impossible I have found to ask that every single caregiver be on the exact same page.) I can't stress it enough: any behavior that you will expect of them, start practicing as early as possible, in a stress-free environment, showing them what you want them to do, not ordering.

I think that these methods of redirecting, distraction, and habit formation work so well for “disciplining” a young child because young children are concrete learners. This cannot be emphasized enough: Young children need to touch, feel, and be shown things to learn them. As an example, I used to think that to teach letters it would be enough to show a child a letter and say, “This is A.” But I found this was not true: The letter “A” is too much of an abstraction for a young child to understand; pointing to a letter is actually quite different than pointing to a picture of, say, a cow and saying, “This is a cow.” To bridge this gap, one lesson you can do is to have a cut-out of a letter that they can hold, such as a foam letter, and have them place it on a large, matching drawn letter in a book or made from a sheet of paper. This helps bridge the gap between the concrete letter that they can hold and the abstract representation of that letter. This method was extremely effective at getting my 23 month old to understand letters, and the ability to do this lesson coincided exactly with his ability to understand simple but abstract explanations and instructions. You can use such a lesson as a great gauge of where your child’s reasoning capability is.

Indeed, this is the problem I have with people who use timeouts on their children, especially with children under the age of 3, and worse, under the age of 2. When a parent yells at their child, “Do not run into the road!” a very young child may or may not understand what you mean by “road,” “run” and “do not.” Yet if a child does not do as the parent demands on the spot, they get yelled at for “not listening” and then punished. To the child, I can only imagine that it feels like the parent is, on total whim, harming them. What can this cause except resistance and resentment?

There are people who give training their dog more thought and respect than disciplining their child. If you told your dog, without any coaching or training, to “Sit!” and the dog did not, would you then punish the dog for “not listening”? Yet this is exactly what people often demand of their child who is only 18 months old.

I knew a child who, at 2 years old, was still speaking absolute gibberish. Everything that came out of his mouth was indecipherable. And yet the child was constantly being put in timeout for “not listening.” The child showed no proof that he had any idea what was going on, yet he was expected to have the reasoning capability of perhaps a 4 year old. What a terrible breakdown in communication, which means a terrible breakdown in understanding reason and the role it plays in man’s life.

I think that all discipline for such a young child needs to concrete and rely more on actions than words. It almost always requires a parent to get up off of their butt and go over to the child, at a close distance, to show them what is expected. All coaching should take place 6-12” from a child’s face with a calm and gentle tone of voice. I shudder when I hear a parent scream at a child from across the room or from inside of their house at a child outside—even I tense up uncomfortably in such a situation.

There is no need to be overbearing with a child and demand they do what you ask right that instant. I found it sometimes takes a while for a lesson to sink in. We battled the issue of hand washing for several weeks. The problem was we used to not expect it of my son before he was given milk and food, and then we did expect it. But, after several weeks of asking he do it before eating, my son not only does it, but reminds us of when we forget! I am reminded of what my son’s Montessori administrator said to me when I was worried that he would not get used to using a mat at school, “It takes a few weeks.”

At around 23-24 months, as noted, I found that my child could understand more complex explanations and instructions. At this age, I started to use the P.E.T method of parenting, which does rely more on conversation and negotiating. This however extends beyond the scope of this article, which focuses on the 15-24 month age range.

As noted, I had read the thoughts of many so-called experts (one of whom insisted parents be licensed before being allowed to have children—how terrible it would be if his outdated advice was entrenched throughout society due to mandated government licensing!) that, at this tender age of 15-24 months, if I wasn’t “firm” with my child, specifically using timeouts, I would have a terrible child by the age of 2. These warnings gave me a terrible complex about how I parented and if I was doing enough. I reject all of their alarmist warnings. This method I propose is firm—a child is expected to eventually behave in certain ways—but still loving. I submit to you, if your child can do all of these things—wash their hands when asked, not run into the road, take your hand when you walk—do you think you will have many discipline problems throughout your day? These methods, which do most definitely require an active and sometimes firm effort on the parent’s part, create, in my experience, a wonderfully cooperative child, who is happy, pleasant, and full of joy. 

In thinking and reading about discipline for children, I have come to the conclusion that the main guiding principle for all discipline, from birth to adulthood, is to let the child do things for themselves, which means that they get personal practice with it, which means they feel the lesson. Pretty much every warning from every author that I've ever read, from a whiny toddler to a bratty teenager, is resolved if you come back to this principle. Dr. White warns, as I wrote earlier, about a spoiled 12-month old if you always come to their rescue when they ask for help. If you simply adopt the principle to let them solve things on their own, through and through, always, with only verbal guidance and only minimal physical help for particularly hard problems, this issue is resolved.

In this leap (starting around 15 months), children start testing and exploring issues of right and wrong. I have found the very best thing to do is to continue to again let them do work on their own. They are trying to get what they want. Well, to get what they want, they can ahead and get it themselves. It is a very valuable lesson: they cannot manipulate the people around them to get something. Now fast forward to when they are teenagers. Parent looks at me like I am pure evil when I say this, but if your teenager wants a cell phone, they can get the financial means to secure one and get one. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can replace having them be responsible for acquiring such things on their own with respect to developing responsibility. No amount of lecturing, external punishments, or heart-to-heart talks can replace it. Developing responsibility is like learning how to dribble a basketball: You can read a manual on how to do it but you have to practice it to make it a habit.

I have a theory that, if windows of opportunity in a child's development are missed, then the methods required to get the child to behave properly become grisly. For discipline, if you catch the formation of a child's morality at the right time, during this window starting at 15 months, the child easily adopts the guidelines you put down. If you miss the window, discipline is not developed, and then to get the child to behave properly, much more grisly approaches are usually deployed, which are authoritarian in nature.  

Leap of Systems – 75 Weeks (17.5 Months)

Armed with an understanding of principles and programs, the child is now ready to start putting everything together. Wonder Weeks describes that at this age, the earliest time of which is about 17.5 months, the child again grows in their intellectual flexibility. At the last leap, the toddler was able to deal with programs easily. At this leap, the toddler can deal with principles easily. Combining their knowledge of programs and principles, they now start to understand, evaluate, imitate, and create systems.

A system is a set of things that are interdependent but work as a whole, e.g., a car, the human body, a family, a business. I am thrilled that Wonder Weeks describes the hierarchal nature of systems: systems are made up of components and to understand a system as a whole, one must first understand all of the components. This is important in diagnosing any problems with systems as well, e.g., how a doctor diagnoses an illness with the human body.

The difference between this leap and the last one can seem subtle. Remember that the last leaps involved a lot of testing and practice. In the leap of principles, the child was developing strategies. Now he or she is capable of dealing with these strategies as one integrated whole.

For adults, being able to apply a past strategy that worked to a new situation can be a potentially dangerous double-edged sword. On one hand, it is nice to have some tried and true strategies to apply to new situations such that you are not starting from scratch. On the other hand, you may apply a strategy to a situation where it doesn't apply. You may also neglect to develop a new strategy that would work better. This is where it is important, in the words of Ayn Rand, to "check your premises."

I knew a politician once who won a local office. Her main method of campaigning was to walk from door to door asking people for their vote. She then won a seat in Congress. When her seat was up for vote again in 2 years, she continued the strategy of walking door to door. Another candidate focused on fundraising and thus could run constant TV ads. He beat her, easily. The losing candidate blamed the "big political machine" for her loss. I would suggest her strategy was a failed one.

Or another example is an Olympic ski skater I watched once. He would always complain that his style didn't work well in certain snow conditions. At some point, you develop different styles.

Applying strategies correctly is a lifelong skill that becomes more and more sophisticated with experience. We as adults can handle many different situations easily. The toddler just now has the cognitive foundation to develop this skill.

In the last leap, with parental guidance, the child practiced principles and in this leap can now deal with them easily. Now in this leap of systems, the child can choose what principles they will apply in what situations. A major decision is what principles they will adopt for themselves, as overarching moral guides for their own life. From Wonder Weeks: "She can choose what she wants to be: honest, helpful, careful, patient, and so forth." More: "From off this age you can see him develop the earliest beginnings of a conscience, by systematically upholding his norms and values." (link) I was shocked to learn that this, when the child becomes a self-made soul, happens at just 17.5 months. 

If you taught your child how to put away their toys in the last leap of principles, you may see your child do this on their own initiative. If so, you just witnessed the conscience of your child at work!

Wonder Weeks describes that your child will lose their "mechanical nature" at this age. They are very fluid. They can easily try strategy after strategy. This in my experience gives them perseverance. It is getting harder to show you, my reader, what these leaps are like with mere pictures. A video would be better. But nonetheless, here is a snapshot of my son at 86 weeks buckling the seatbelt on his high chair. In the video, you would see him trying different configurations, until he finally put both sides of the seat buckle together:



At 87 weeks, he could string the segments of his train together. He also started to put the actual railroad tracks together.



Wonder Weeks describes how the child will make up their own games. My son made up the "uh oh" game. Around 78 weeks, he would purposely throw a ball under the couch and say "Uh oh." It was then a game to fish it out. We went to a hardware store and found a flashlight that he could turn on himself to aid in this "uh oh" game.

Wonder Weeks also describes children as learning social norms at this age. It was very darling when my son, on his own initiative, would say "bye bye" to his schoolmates as he left school for the day.

Wonder Weeks describes that the child will know whose stuff is what. At the end of the school day, my son could easily pick out his lunch box, which he then carried to our car. He could also pick out our car among all the others. He developed a keen idea of who "mom" and "dad" were and could point to "mommy's nose" and "[his] nose" accurately; thus was able to understand and say two-word phrases. And, towards the end of the leap, he was saying sentences. His first sentence was, while I was shopping and struggling to get something off of a high shelf, "I'll help you!"

I was very grateful to read in Wonder Weeks that a child can become possessive at this age. One thing they may do is always want what mom or dad has. We would let my son eat at his own chair at meals, unrestrained, but he was always trying to climb in my lap. After reading Wonder Weeks, I decided to stop fighting it and just put him in the high chair. It worked beautifully. Most of parenting I have found can come back to this principle: "don't fight it." There is very little that a child does that is actually naughty. Almost everything is age appropriate.

This is an age where I think stimulation is essential. How far it is from a newborn! I strongly feel a newborn needs no stimulation for at least the first 3 months, with gradually increasing forms of stimulation until this age, a lot of stimulation of which is more natural (let the child be free) than targeted. But now I think organized, targeted stimulation is appropriate for the child. There are many Montessori activities a child can do now, such as the wooden cylinders. There are many books on activities for toddlers that are worth a read at this age.

This age is the gateway to those precious, tender years where a child forms the basis of who they will become.  Enter the world of productivity, of building things from components. According to Wonder Weeks, the child can now (potentially) form sentences, draw, appreciate music, and build more complicated Lego structures (depending on the individuality of the child is when each skill develops). Wonder Weeks describes that at 2 years old, a child can be taught a musical instrument! If you have availability to one, I would throw away toy kid pianos, and use a real one. Many subjects are open to the child at this point, including simple architecture, physics, and art. The child is also at a high point of imitating others; you may have a little budding comedian on your hands. I strongly encourage you to read Wonder Weeks for others examples of how your child is growing.

I took special note of how a child at this age often wants some alone time just to take everything in. This is a known behavior even in adults: they need time to think and reflect when learning a new subject; devising new, complicated creative plans; or working through a challenging problem. I read once that the most creative people are both extroverts and introverts. Their introversion allows them to think through problems. Their extroversion allows them to discuss ideas with others, greatly encouraging creativity. Let your child have this alone time. It is important for their cognitive growth.

At 18 months, Beginning Montessori recommends phonetically sounding out words, playing short music tunes, and exploring nature at this age. Wonder Weeks also recommends exploring the outdoors.

At 18 months, Touchpoints dwindles into heavy-handed advice about the need for "discipline" and talking to children "like you really mean it." It was a stark difference from Wonder Weeks, which focused on all of the amazing new productive efforts your child can now do. I did not much enjoy Touchpoints starting at this age.

At this age, around 20-21 months, is where Wonder Weeks ends in its research and so too my article. At 21 months there is an explosion of verbal language. At the time the child can talk more, a parent can better reason and understand what the child is thinking. Until then, it is largely a guessing game. How wonderful it is to have a gem like Wonder Weeks, produced by scientists who have made the most perceptive observations, as a guide to what is “going on in your child’s head.” Going forward, I fear, I will feel a bit lost without their work. In particular, it is hard to know if certain times are fussy periods after this or not. I do think there are some but instead of describing it as your child being “clingy,” you may describe it as “cuddly,” and instead of “fussy,” you may describe it as “uncooperative.”

For reading material beyond this age, I recommend Parent Effectiveness Training, books by Montessori, and, with only slight reservations, books by Magda Gerber. I have written a series on Montessori methods meant to act as a concise guide for a parent and which focuses on Montessori activities for a child aged 18-30 months, which is just before classic Montessori activities typically begin.

Happy Leaps!



This is the overview of the leaps according to Wonder Weeks. The first entry, "Newborn" is not a "leap," but is included as a starting point.


Here is how Touchpoints lined up with Wonder Weeks.


Changing Sensations (5 weeks)



World of Patterns (8 weeks)


Smooth Transitions (12 weeks)



World of Events (4.5 months)


Relationships (6 months)


Categories (8.5 months)


Sequences (10.5 months)


Programs (12.5 months)


Principles (15 months)


Systems (17.5 months)


Here is how the Beginning Montessori book lines up with the timeline outlined in Wonder Weeks.



Amber Pawlik
Last updated: April 17, 2014

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