What every toddler needs to thrive

These toddler years lay the groundwork for your little one's brain development and health for the rest of their life. So, what does your child need to thrive during this critical time?

A happy toddler smiling and jumping on the bed.
Photo credit: Katie Rain for BabyCenter

Anyone who's been through it before knows that raising a toddler can be tough, especially when they're having their seventh temper tantrum of the day or throwing dinner on the floor … again. But even on those hard days, taking care of your child's basic needs, plus giving them plenty of love and attention, can go a long way in setting them up for developmental success.

These toddler years are the foundation of your child's wellbeing throughout life. In fact, 80 percent of a person's nervous system development happens before the age of 3! Don't worry, you don't have to be a child development expert to give your toddler a good start in life. But here's what you can to do make sure your little one is happy, healthy, and thriving.

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Give your toddler love and affection

It seems obvious, but it's true: Children need love to live. Your emotional caring and support give your child a secure base from which to explore the world.

This isn't just touchy-feely advice: Scientific evidence shows that love, attention, and affection in the first years of life have a direct and measurable impact on a child's physical, mental, and emotional growth. Love and touch actually facilitate brain development in babies and toddlers.

How can you best show your love? Hug, touch, smile, encourage, listen to, and play with your child whenever you can. Respond promptly when your toddler is upset to help comfort and soothe them. You're not "giving in" if you do this; you're helping your toddler develop healthy emotional regulation. Knowing that they're cared for creates a healthy attachment in young children, which lets their brains flourish. Experts say it's impossible to spoil a child with love.

Meet your toddler's basic needs

Your toddler's basic needs are the same as yours – food, sleep, clothing, shelter, and health – they just need more help getting these met, of course!

For your child to be able to devote energy to learning and growing, they need to be well fed. That said, meal time can be stressful, especially because toddlers are notoriously picky eaters. It's okay to give yourself permission to relax a bit (you don't have to make every mealtime a battle), but try to set good examples, like providing a variety of foods and sharing meals as a family.

A reasonable goal is to focus on your toddler's overall nutritional needs over the course of an entire week, and don't fret too much if one day it seems like they're only eating carbs. You can't actually control what or how much your child eats, but it's your job to offer a variety of healthy choices at consistent engaging meal and snack times. Then it's your child's job to decide how much and which of those healthy options they'll eat.

Sleep is critical for well-being (and good behavior), and toddlers need lots of it: about 11-14 hours in a 24-hour period. During REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, your child's brain cells are making important connections called synapses. These pathways enable all learning, movement, and thought. They're the key to your child understanding everything they're seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling as they explore the world. Create a consistent bedtime routine and stay active during the day (except during nap time) to help your toddler get to sleep easier.

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Next, your toddler needs routine medical care. Even a simple ear infection can be a big energy drain, and frequent ear infections might actually delay speech development. To keep your child healthy, take them for regular checkups, make sure their immunizations are up-to-date, and never be afraid to reach out to their doctor if you have any concerns.

If you work or need a babysitter regularly, finding a consistent, quality childcare provider is essential to your toddler's development. You'll want to find a caretaker or daycare center who will provide these needs for your toddler when you're not around. Whether you choose a nanny, a relative, daycare, or some other arrangement, look for a provider who is experienced, caring, and reputable. Choose someone with a genuine love for children and the energy to help them thrive.

Encourage your toddler to talk

The toddler years are when your child's language abilities really begin to blossom. You'll notice them talking and understanding more and more every day. Before their second birthday, your child will likely be asking questions and putting simple sentences together. Soon after that, they'll be so good with language that they might even understand a joke.

The best thing you can do to facilitate this development is talk to your child, even before they can talk back. Research shows that children whose parents spoke to them extensively as infants developed more advanced language skills and richer vocabularies than kids who didn't receive much verbal stimulation. If your child's too young to carry on a conversation, describe what you're doing: "Mommy is putting warm water in the tub so you can get cleaned up."

Try to steer clear of excessive baby talk: Speaking correctly teaches your growing child good language skills, and may even help them on future grammar tests!

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Read books with your toddler

Next to talking, reading out loud to your toddler is one of the most important things you can do to help them build their vocabulary, stimulate their imagination, and improve their language skills. (It also gives you a great opportunity to cuddle and socialize.)

Try to read aloud to your child each day. Schedule daily reading time to make it a part of their routine, especially during quiet times like before naps. Leave board books somewhere that your child can access – by 18 months they may enjoy flipping through the pages themselves. Look for other ways to expose your child to the joys of reading, too, such as taking them to story time for young children at your local library.

Stimulate their senses and encourage new interactions

For your toddler to learn about people, places, and things, they need to be safely exposed to the world. Every new interaction gives them information about their environment and their place in it. Studies show that children who grow up in an enriched environment – one with lots of new experiences that engage their senses – have larger, more active brains than those who grow up without adequate sensory stimulation.

You don't need to bombard your child with stimulation or try to engage all their senses at once – they can become overstimulated. Just let your child play with lots of different sensory toys and objects. Choose playthings in a variety of shapes, textures, colors, sounds, and weights.

Play music and interactive games (such as peekaboo and patty-cake), go on walks and shopping trips together, and let your child safely meet new people. Learn more about the effects of music on your child's development, and get the lyrics to some of your favorite lullabies. Even the simplest daily activities can stimulate a toddler's brain development. (When choosing toys, remember the more the toy does on its own, the less your child is learning.)

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Also, give your child room to roam: Toddlers need space to crawl, walk, and run to develop strong muscles, good balance, and coordination. They also benefit from safe spaces where they can explore their surroundings without hearing someone say, "No!" or "Don't touch!"

The easiest way to do this is to childproof your home (or at least the common areas). Keep dangerous objects out of your child's reach and safe ones accessible. In the kitchen, for example, put childproof locks on all of the cabinets but one. Fill that with plastic bowls, measuring cups, wooden spoons, and pots and pans that your toddler can play with safely. Be sure that your child plays well away from the stove, where hot liquids can spill and cause scald burns.

Help foster independent play

While it's fun to play with your child, it's important they have time to play by themselves and with other kids too. This independent play allows toddlers to start practicing important life skills. When they play alone, they're following their own interests and making their own decisions; and with a group of kids, they practice social skills and negotiations.

It's no wonder that developmental experts say that play is the most important job kids have. (Plus, when your child plays on their own, you'll get a much-needed break!)

It's important to try to avoid frustrating your toddler with toys and activities that are way beyond their abilities, but a little struggling can actually go a long way toward fostering independence. When an activity doesn't come easily to your toddler, they have to figure out a new way to accomplish the task. That type of problem-solving is good fuel for their development.

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If your child is attempting to open a box, for example, resist the urge to help. Let them try first. If they continue to struggle, you can show them how it's done, but then give them back the closed box so they can make another attempt on their own.

Don't forget to take care of yourself

Healthy parents raise healthy children. And if you're struggling with your mental health, it can have an impact on your child's development. Parents who are feeling down or upset may find it difficult to respond promptly and sensitively to their child's needs.

Getting support can keep you from feeling overwhelmed. If you have a partner, try to find ways to fairly divide the household and parenting responsibilities with them. If you're a single parent, surround yourself with people who can offer you help. Don't forget to take time for yourself. Being a parent – especially an involved and active one – is tiring, and you need time to re-energize.

Some parents need professional counseling or medicine to be their best selves – and that's nothing to be ashamed of. If you think you might be struggling with anxiety or depression, don't be afraid to talk to your healthcare provider. There's no shame in getting treatment, and you'll improve your health and your child's by doing so.

Read more:

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BabyCenter's editorial team is committed to providing the most helpful and trustworthy pregnancy and parenting information in the world. When creating and updating content, we rely on credible sources: respected health organizations, professional groups of doctors and other experts, and published studies in peer-reviewed journals. We believe you should always know the source of the information you're seeing. Learn more about our editorial and medical review policies.

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Kelly Burch

Kelly Burch is a freelance journalist covering health, entrepreneurship, family, and more. She's passionate about bringing complex topics to life through stories that are easy to read and informative. Burch lives in New Hampshire with her husband and two young daughters. When she's not at her desk, you'll find her kayaking or hiking in the wilderness around her home. Burch is currently writing a book about traveling around the United States in an RV with her family for seven months.