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Development milestones - your child at 3 years

8-minute read

Key facts

  • Development milestones are social, emotional and physical skills that children are able to do as they develop.
  • Different skills, emotions and activities are reached at different ages.
  • Toddlers are likely to start toilet training between 2 and 3 years of age.
  • But remember that every child is different — your child will develop at their own pace.
  • If you are worried that your child is not reaching their milestones, talk to your doctor or child health nurse.

What are development milestones?

Development milestones are social, emotional and physical skills that children are able to do as they develop. Different skills, emotions and activities are reached at different ages.

Crawling, walking, talking, using toys and feeding themselves are all examples of milestones.

All over the world and across cultures, children meet development milestones in generally the same order. But remember that every child is different. Your child will develop at their own pace.

If you are worried about whether your child is reaching their milestones within an expected period, talk to your doctor or a child health nurse.

How can I help my child to develop?

It's important that your toddler gets enough sleep — 12 to 13 hours a day. This includes a long sleep at night. Some children don't need daytime sleeps at all, especially as they approach the 3-year-mark. Although they may still need some quiet time.

Children benefit from a variety of healthy foods. Offer several options, including vegetables and fruits, at every meal. Let your child decide how much they'd like to try.

Be a role model for good eating behaviours. Remember, children love to imitate you! Sit down and eat a good variety of healthy foods.

Too much use of screens and devices by young children can affect their development. Try to keep screen time (including television) to less than 1 hour per day from ages 2 to 5 years.

It's best for children under 2 years of age to have no screen time.

What physical skills should my child have at 3 years?

Toddlers are likely to start toilet training between ages 2 and 3 years. Some will find it very easy. Others will take longer.

Toilet training needs a lot of different skills. Signs that your toddler may be ready to begin toilet training usually appear from the age of 2 years. Try to be patient and wait until they're ready.

By the age of 3 years, many toddlers will help you wash them in the bath.

Encourage your child to feed themself. They will get better. You will need to be patient and expect some mess with meals.

At this age your child will be getting better at being able to:

  • throw, kick and catch balls
  • walk up and down stairs while holding a rail or your hand

They are also likely to:

  • jump on the spot
  • ride a tricycle (a bike with 3 wheels)
  • get dressed (with your help)
  • copy a circle with a pencil or crayon
  • screw and unscrew jar lids and turn door handles
  • turn the pages of a book

What social and emotional milestones should I expect by 3 years?

This is an important time for your child's emotional development. They start to feel more complex emotions. Examples of more complex emotions are guilt and shame. These can be confusing for a young child.

Temper tantrums are likely to continue. This is because children at this age struggle with strong feelings. They cannot express their feelings in words.

Around age 3 years, toddlers become more aware of other people's feelings. They start to understand how their behaviour can affect you. They also start to understand that your behaviour affects them. They may show concern for friends or family who cry.

Your toddler is likely to enjoy playing with other children. They will enjoy pretend play, singing, and games that copy things that family members do.

Some children seem to like routines. They can get upset if things change. However, they will start to get used to the changes that happen. They will also start to accept being away from parents or carers more readily. They can often settle more quickly than younger children.

What should my child be able to understand and communicate at 3 years?

By 3 years, your child has a vocabulary of 200 or more words. They can connect these words in longer sentences of 3 or more words. You may have a conversation where you and your child take turns to speak. You can understand the words your child is saying.

As your toddler approaches their 3rd birthday, they may be able to explain things. They can use a few words to say what they've done or where they've been. Strangers will be able to understand them most of the time. They will be able to follow a 2 to 3 step instruction.

During the year, you'll also notice your toddler starting to use grammar rules of language. They will use past-tense verbs. They might say "I walked with my friend" instead of "I walk with my friend.'

Children who grow up in homes where multiple languages are spoken might develop their use of words differently. For instance, a child who speaks 2 languages might not be saying 50 words in one language but can likely say 50 words across the 2 languages.

Your child will also start to try and solve problems, or match objects or pictures. They will answer who, what and where' questions.

Your child will understand more about how events and actions are connected. One example is knowing that putting shoes on means they will soon be going out.

You'll notice your child talking or singing to themself when playing. They might give voices to their toys. Find out more about speech development in children.

How can I help my child to learn and develop through play?

You can help your child learn and develop by:

  • letting them take part in a range of play activities
  • encouraging and praising what they do
  • reading, listening and talking to your toddler — improves their conversation skills

Play times are important as they show your toddler how to get along with others. Play time also helps them develop better physical skills and hand-eye coordination.

Giving praise helps to boost your toddler's confidence so that they will keep trying new things. This includes praising their current skills and encouraging them to try new things.

Read about play and exercise in children.

What if I am worried about my child?

Children learn things and can do things at different ages. You may want to talk to your doctor or child health nurse if your 3-year-old child:

  • falls down a lot or has trouble with stairs
  • can't balance on one foot
  • can't draw a simple line or cross
  • can't use cutlery or undo buttons
  • doesn't pretend play
  • doesn't want to play with toys or other children
  • doesn't make eye contact

You may also want to talk to your doctor or child health nurse if your 3-year-old child:

  • has unclear speech
  • doesn't speak in sentences
  • doesn't seem to understand 2 to 3 step instructions
  • has lost skills they once had

What vaccines does my child need?

Routine childhood vaccinations are an important part of keeping your child healthy.

Each year your child should get a flu vaccination. There are no standard vaccinations due between 2 and 3 years of age.

Resources and support

If you have questions or are worried about your child's development, contact your doctor or child health nurse.

There are parenting support services available, including parenting support lines in your state or territory.

You can find out about playgroups at Playgroup Australia.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2023


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Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

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