3-Year Toddler Milestones
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Did you know that 80% of the brain develops by age 3? That means, your 3-year-old is exploding with new skills! That curious toddler of yours has somehow morphed into an active, silly, talkative preschooler with a zillion questions that need to be answered. But since 3-year-olds aren’t ready for reasoning yet (Toddler-ese is still a go-to), it’s smart to answer the onslaught of Whys with easy-to-digest answers, like “so you don’t get hurt” or “because it makes your body strong” or to simply say “I don’t know” if that’s the case. It’s also great to counter these questions with an ask of your own: Should we look for an answer in your books? Whatever you do, always take your 3-year-old’s questions seriously! Doing so will expand your child’s knowledge and feed their curiosity. Speaking of curiosity: Are you curious about other ways your 3-year-old is growing and changing? Keep reading for more insights on 3-year-old’s milestones.
3-Year-Old Milestone Checklist
Here’s a list of milestones most kids (that means 75% or more) can do by 3 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)…
Social and Emotional Milestones
Can calm down within 10 minutes after you leave them, like at a daycare drop off
Notices other children playing and joins in
Language and Communication Milestones
Has conversations with you using at least two back-and-forth exchanges
Asks who, what, where, and why questions, such as “Where’s mommy?”
Says what kind of action (i.e.: running, eating) is happening in a picture or book when asked
Says first name when you ask
Usually speaks well enough for others to understand
Learning, Thinking, and Problem-Solving Milestones
Draws a circle after you show them how
Avoids touching hot objects, like a stove, once you warn them
Movement and Physical Development Milestones
Can string items together, like large beads or macaroni
Able to put on some articles of clothes by themselves, such as a jacket
Uses a fork
Your 3-Year-Old’s Growth
A typical 3-year-old gains an average of 4 to 6 pounds—and grows around 2 to 3 inches—a year. That means, the average 3-year-old weighs around 30 pounds and stands roughly 37 inches tall—and is starting to look more like a big kid. For example, there’s a good chance your tot’s adorable pot belly is now less rounded. Their head and legs are now more in proportion with the rest of their body.
Your 3-year-old’s smile is finally rocking a complete set of baby teeth! Your tot will hold onto those teeth for about three years. (Typically children begin to lose their baby teeth at about age 6.) While you may worry if your child isn’t as tall as, or weighs more than, or has fewer teeth than their playmates, know that the most important aspect of your 3-year-old’s healthy growth and development is that they’re continuing to grow at a “normal” rate.
Your 3-Year-Old’s Language Development
Right now, your 3-year-old can likely rattle off at least 200+ words, their sentences are 2- to 3-words long, and they can have at least two back-and-forth exchanges in their conversations. Many 3-year-olds also answer simple who, what, where, and why questions—and turn most everyday words plural when appropriate.
Your 3-year-old’s articulation has greatly improved, too, which means you can now understand about 75% of what your child says to you. There’s a good bet, however, that your bub may still have a tough time saying more difficult sounds, such as l, r, s, sh, ch, y, v, z, th. (Those may not be fully mastered till around the age of 7.)
Continue to help your 3-year-old build their vocabulary by reading to them a lot—and adding onto their sentences and correcting their grammar. For example, if your 3-year-old says, “I likes red house” you can respond with, “I like the big, bright red house, too!” Or if your 3-year-old says something like “I want nana,” repeat back “You want a banana?”
Your 3-Year-Old’s Development: Motor Skills
Around age 3, your child’s muscle control is blossoming! For one, they now have more precise finger and hand movements, leading to a more adult-like grasp, where their thumb sits on one side of the crayon, and their fingers on the other. (This is a fine motor skill.) Three-year-olds love to repeat lines and shapes (dots, open circles) and to pepper their artwork with shapes that look like Hs, Ts, Vs, and Xs. (Learn more about your budding artist!) Additional fine motor skills your 3-year-olds are starting to master include tracing, stringing 1-inch beads onto a string, using child-safe scissors, and stacking 10 cubes.
- Walk across a 4-inch balance beam
- Move forward and backward with agility
- Alternate feet going up and down stairs
- Jump in place
- Jump forward 8 to 12 inches
- Pedal a tricycle
- Catch an 8-inch ball thrown from 5 feet
- Kick a ball
- Throw a ball
- Bend over easily
- Balance on each foot for 3 seconds
- Walk across a 4-inch balance beam
Your 3-Year-Old’s Development: Play
Three-year-olds have rich fantasy lives, often imagining that their toys can communicate and play with them! (SNOObear told me all about their friends in forest!) At this age, kids are also starting to develop super-specific interests (Dino obsession, anyone?) and will likely have lots of opinions on toys they play with. Your child is still deep into parallel play, but something called associate play starts to emerge, too. Here, your child begins to interact with others during play. For example, your 3-year-old might play on the same piece of playground equipment as other kiddos, but they’re all doing different things.
Three-year-old also express more interest in structured games, like tag or follow the leader, and enjoy playing in the sandbox for longer periods of time—but know that they may still have trouble sharing toys and experience conflict when playing with others. Three-year-olds can now…
Work mechanical toys
Play matching games
Take turns in games
Play make believe
Play counting games
Sort objects by shape and color
Complete 3- to 10-piece puzzles
Play “Mommy” or “Daddy”
Feeding Your 3-Year-Old
A child’s appetite often drops around 3 years old—and it’s not because of picky eating. Instead, 3-year-olds are simply growing at a slower rate than 2-year-olds, so they need less food. Even still, each day, your 3-year-old requires about 40 calories for every inch of their height. To get there, rely on simple meals, which is what 3-year-olds prefer. All you really need to do is include a protein source, a whole grain, a fruit and/or vegetable, and a serving of dairy. That means, a half turkey sandwich on 100% whole grain bread with a quarter cup of matchstick carrots and a sliced half an apple, plus a half-cup of milk is mealtime perfection for a 3-year-old! By 3, your child should be eating with a fork and spoon.
If the idea of a simple turkey sammie still strikes fear in your heart, know that if your child was a picky eater at 2 years old, there’s a good chance their attitude may soften by age 3, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Many 3-year-olds are better at participating in family meals and enjoying them, too. Of course, food preferences still exist—and may vary from day to day. For example, your tot may wolf down PB&Js one day, then refuse the very same sandwich a week later. They may also get stuck on one food that they only want to eat. This so-called “food jag” usually doesn’t last long. The key is to not overreact to these changing tides and not to fall over yourself catering to your tot’s every whim. Instead, give your 3-year-old simple, healthy food choices every day. So, at snack time ask questions like, “Do you want a cheese stick or yogurt?” This is what Dr. Harvey Karp calls a win-win compromise. Remember it’s your job to decide what healthy foods to offer your 3-year-old and it’s their job to decide which of those to eat—and how much. (PS: Developing a taste for new foods can take up to 20 repeated exposures, noted the AAP.)
But just because your child is looking and acting more like a big kid, doesn’t mean safe-eating rules get tossed out with their diapers! Continue to keep choking hazards off your 3-year-old’s plate, including large pieces of hard raw vegetables, whole grapes, whole hot dogs, spoonfuls of peanut butter, chips, nuts, and popcorn. Learn more about what’s considered a choking hazard for 3-year-olds.
Kitchen Chores for 3-Year-Olds
To further their mealtime enjoyment, let your child help with making meals! Your budding tot is more than capable of handling a number of simple kitchen tasks. Three-year-olds can…
Wash fruits and vegetables
Squeeze lemons and limes
Tear lettuce for a salad
Help assemble a pizza
Use a pastry brush to spread cooking oil on bread or veggies
Use cookie cutters
Pour milk with help
Help count out items with you (“Can you help me count out two eggs and three bananas?”)
Put forks, spoons, and napkins on the table
Wipe up tabletops
Use a small spoon and fork
Chop herbs with a butter or other child-safe knife
Here are more age-appropriate chores to try with your 3-year-old!
3-Year-Old Milestones: Health
Starting at 3 years old, your growing tot’s well-child visits now only occur once a year! Of course, 3-year-olds get an average of 6 to 8 colds a year—plus several bouts of diarrhea and vomiting, as well as ear infections—so, chances are you’ll still be seeing the pediatrician at times throughout the year.
But, back to well-visits! At your child’s 3-year checkup, the pediatrician will perform the standard physical exam (height, weight, reflexes, etc.) and some tots may be checked for anemia, lead, and/or tuberculosis, if needed. The doc will also ask about your 3-year-old’s nutrition, their reading and language development, and about potty habits. At 3 years old, kids have good bladder and bowel control and are usually able to use a potty chair or toilet. (American parents usually begin potty training their tots between 2 and 3 years old.)
If your 3-year-old missed any vaccines—or needs a flu shot—they can easily be given during their well-child visit. While visual acuity screening (seeing details of letters or symbols from a distance) is recommended to begin between the ages 4 and 5, according to the AAP, cooperative 3-year-olds may be tested, too. By the way, at 3 years old, your bub’s vision is nearing 20/20!
To help keep your 3-year-old healthy, feed them a variety of nutritious foods, limit juice to no more than 4 ounces a day, avoid flavored milk, and limit processed food. According to the AAP, 3-year-olds need at least 3 hours of physical activity each day—or about 15 minutes every hour they are awake. Moreover, 3-year-olds should not be inactive for more than 1 hour at a time—except when sleeping. As much as you can, encourage lots of outdoor activity, allowing your child to choose what and how they want to play. Join them and follow their lead!
3-Year-Old Sleep Milestones
How much sleep do 3-year-olds need?
While 2-year-olds need 11 to 14 hours of shuteye, your big kid can clock a little less—specifically, between 10 and 13 hours of sleep, including naps, over a 24-hour period. That said, not all 3-year-olds are nappers. By the time children are 3, 33% have stopped napping, according to a 2020 report in Sleep Medicine Reviews.
3-Year-Old Sleep Regressions
Nap or no nap, for some kiddos, evening sleep can be disrupted by a 3-year sleep regression. Parents most often report toddler sleep regression occurring around 18 months and again at 2 years old, but sleep regressions and other sleep problems can happen at 3-years-old, too, thanks to a too-late or too-early bedtime, newfound anxiety, transitioning to a toddler bed, potty training, too much pre-bed screens or roughhousing, or nightmares.
Nightmares, in fact, tend to peak between 3 and 12 years old. Here, your bub may wake up crying or afraid and may have difficulty drifting back to sleep. According to Dr. Harvey Karp, nightmares may begin at this time because 3-year-olds…
Feel more vulnerable than before
Are witnessing and experiencing more upsetting things in real life or on screens
May be holding back angry feelings. For example, when a child is trying to control aggressive impulses and not hit, bite, or yell, that anger can break through at night into violent, scary dreams.
Think about how real dreams can seem to us. Now imagine how real and scary they must seem to a 3-year-old! Nightmares can cause a child to fear falling asleep, and even to fear being in the bedroom. To help quell your 3-year-old’s uneasy feelings, turn on a just-bright-enough nightlight, like SNOObie. If your child can see familiar surroundings when they wake at 2am, it can help them feel safer.
During your bub’s third year, the connections in their prefrontal cortex—or the part of the brain associated with cognitive behavior, personality, and decision-making—are exploding! As a result, your child’s cognitive abilities, their thoughts and behaviors are maturing rapidly. While every 3-year-old will develop their own unique personality, there are some common behavioral traits that many exhibit, such as spontaneously showing affection to familiar folks, asking grownups tons of questions, and starting to take turns and share with playmates…though your bub will likely still have some trouble sharing toys at times. (Sharing skills most often develop between 3.5 to 4 years old.)
Because 3-year-olds are also beginning to express their wide range of emotion in a more socially acceptable way, temper tantrums will be less frequent! In fact, most children begin to have fewer temper tantrums by age 3.5. And according to the National Library of Medicine, temper tantrums generally keep on decreasing and, after age 4, they rarely occur. (Cue the confetti!) When tantrums do occur, first assess whether your child is tired, hungry, or ill, which are all tantrum triggers.
Next, lean into this Dr. Harvey Karp’s advice:
Speak to your 3-year-old in short phrases. Too many words overwhelm an upset 3-year-old’s brain. Stick to one- to three-word phrases until your child calms.
Repeat yourself. Expect to repeat your short phrases three to five times—or more if your tyke needs it.
Mirror your child’s emotions. Reflect about one-third of your child’s emotional intensity with your facial expression, tone of voice, and hand gestures. This shows your 3-year-old that you understand their emotions.
Also, keep in mind, a 3-year-old’s brain still lacks the ability to fully put the brakes on “bad” behavior, like hitting a friend. While most 3-year-olds are 100% capable of repeating a rule to you, they don’t have the impulse control to act on it until they’re about 3.5 or 4 years old. And even then, it’ll take years to be used consistently. In the meantime, for help stopping your 3 year old’s “red light” behaviors—and for help taming 3-year-old’s tantrums, follow Dr. Karp’s tried-and-true advice!
More Insights on Your 3-Year-Old
- The Best Toys for Your 3-Year-Old
- Best Books for 3-Year-Olds
- Three Types of Play Your 3-Year-Old Needs
- All About Toddler Sleep
- Michigan Kids Matter: Development and Milestones for Toddlers (1 - 3 Years)
- American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP): Cognitive Development In Preschool Children
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Important Milestones: Your Child By Three Years
- Children's Health of Orange County (CHOC): Development Milestones for Your 3-Year-Old Child
- CDC: Data Table of Infant Weight-for-age Charts
- CDC: Data Table of Infant Length-for-age Charts
- Kaiser Permanente: Milestones for 3-Year-Olds
- Mayo Clinic: At what age do children start losing their baby teeth?
- Nemours Children’s Health: KidsHealth: Growth and Your 2- to 3-Year-Old
- Nemours Children’s Health: KidsHealth: Communication and Your 2- to 3-Year-Old
- Stanford Medicine: Age-Appropriate Speech and Language Milestones
- Zero To Three: Learning to Write and Draw
- Children’s Minnesota: Developmental Mile
- Pathways: How Kids Learn to Play: 6 Stages of Play Development
- AAP: Movement Milestones in Preschoolers
- AAP: Your Checkup Checklist: 3 Years Old
- AAP: Serving Sizes for Toddlers
- AAP: Feeding & Nutrition Tips: Your 3-Year-Old
- United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): Behavioral Milestones, 2-5 year olds!
- USDA: Kitchen Activities, 2-5 year olds!
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Teaching Kids to Cook
- T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies: Cooking at Every Age, Why Kids Should Learn To Cook
- Nemours Children’s Health: KidsHealth: Medical Care and Your 2- to 3-Year-Old
- AAP: The Right Age to Potty Train
- AAP: Vision Screenings for Babies & Children
- AAP: Recommended Drinks for Children Age 5 & Younger
- AAP: Making Physical Activity a Way of Life: AAP Policy Explained
- AAP: Healthy Sleep Habits: How Many Hours Does Your Child Need?
- Many naps, one nap, none: A systematic review and meta-analysis of napping patterns in children 0-12 years. Sleep Medicine Reviews. November 2019
- The Urban Child Institute: Baby’s Brain Begins Now: Conception to Age 3
- Zero to Three: Helping Young Children With Sharing
- Mayo Clinic: Temper tantrums in toddlers: How to keep the peace
- National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus: Temper tantrums
- Zero To Three: Toddler Tantrums 101: Why They Happen and What You Can Do
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.