Transition from Infant to Toddler

When language comes on line, between about 1 and 3 years, a remarkable shift takes place. A transition occurs from what is termed “presymbolic” (before words) to “symbolic” (having words). Our experience of feelings changes when words are possible.

What are we talking about here? Nothing less than the transition from infant to toddler!

“The Terrible Two’s”

The transition to toddlerhood often results in what has been termed “The Terrible Two’s.” However, I would suggest that “The Terrible Two’s” are a myth – that is, if we understand the developmental issues behind “The Terrible Two’s,” then these “problems” no longer exist!

So what are the major developmental issues in the transition to toddlerhood?

There are three:

  • increased mobility,
  • dawning self-awareness, and
  • the onset of language
  • .


As your child moves from infancy to toddlerhood, physical as well as emotional and cognitive changes occur at a rapid pace. She begins crawling, then walking, and running, and “getting into everything.” The built-in feeling of interest (curiosity) is now unleashed, and the exploratory urges of the toddler are in full gear.

This is what one wants – exploring, learning, being curious and creative. But this change also leads to increased emotional as well as physical separation, with concerns about safety often being foremost.

An interesting dilemma arises as parents try to both support their child’s curiosity and learning about the world while at the same time ensure their child’s safety. These changes affect the parents as well as their toddler, sometimes disrupting the relationship and leading to increased anxiety and struggles around discipline.


At the same time as toddlers begin to walk and run and “get into everything,” their brains are undergoing neurobiological and psychological changes which result in self-awareness and a sense of “me.”

If you put a little red make-up on the nose of a child less than about 18 months and then have the child look at herself in a mirror, nothing much will happen. The child is unaware it is she. At about 18 months this changes: do the same experiment, and the child often will hesitantly, self-consciously touch her nose – she knows the person in the mirror is herself and that there is something on her nose!

So the toddler begins to have a sense of “self,” of “me” – and of likes and dislikes. This is just what one wants – although it can stress out the parents! You want your child to begin getting a sense of who she is and what she likes. This will allow her ultimately to direct herself to a profession, spouse, and avocations which fit for her.


The onset of language has profound implications for the development of the child and for the parent-child relationship. Language allows you and your child to communicate in a new way, to share thoughts, feelings, dreams, and so much more. However, as the brilliant infant researcher Daniel Stern has pointed out, language is a double-edged sword: it can distort as well as clarify.

Before words, parents use their infant’s facial and bodily expressions and vocalizations to help them understand their baby’s feelings and respond helpfully. When words come into play, things change. The child’s early vocabulary is often quite primitive: no, love, hate, no like, and so on. The parent-child relationship often begins to go awry when the child starts expressing distress and anger with words: no, hate, no like.

Is there a solution? Absolutely yes! It’s called translation – translating from the words back to the feelings!

In the next few newsletters we will explore in more detail the stunning changes which occur with the onset of language. This transition creates some marvelous opportunities as well as some potential pitfalls.


The transition from infancy to toddlerhood can sometimes be problematic, resulting in “The Terrible Two’s.” However, understanding the major changes can turn trouble into opportunity. The key changes are mobility, self-awareness, and language.

Interestingly, these three developments lead to the toddler becoming more independent. This in turn results in greater separation between parent and child, which often results in feeling of sadness and loss for the parent. It is said that parenting involves giving your child “roots and wings.” Sometimes it’s not so easy to help a toddler grow “wings” to go along with the “roots”!