Physical Growth

Not a Baby Anymore!

Your child’s shape changes more than height or weight in the years between the 3rd and 6th birthdays. You can expect your child to add about 4-1/2 pounds and grow about 3 inches each year.

Your preschooler’s body “makeover” begins at the top and works down. The bones of the skull and face grow so that your child’s face loses some of its roundness, and your child develops a more noticeable forehead, nose and chin. Meanwhile, the upper and lower jaws widen to make room for permanent teeth. The padded shoulder “football player” look of the toddler changes, too. Your child’s shoulders narrow, posture improves, and that “toddler tummy” flattens.

Your child’s requirement for dietary fat decreases in the preschool years. As your preschooler’s body matures, it’s time to cut down on high-fat foods like whole milk and cheese. The low-fat diet that is good for you is now good for your child.

See “Preschool: 3-5” in the Nutrition section.

Useful Info: Sleep Disturbances

There are several normal sleep behaviors beginning in the preschool years that can be very worrisome to parents:

Sleep Terrors: Sleep terrors, also called night terrors, may begin as young as age 2. Sleep terrors differ from nightmares. Nightmares are frightening dreams during dream sleep and can be remembered upon awaking. Sleep terrors occur in non-dream sleep and cannot be remembered upon awaking. They usually occur 1 to 4 hours after falling asleep and last between 5 and 30 minutes. They may occur several times in one night or only once in a lifetime. Sleep terrors are far worse for the parents than for the child.

Typically, the child appears to be awake, screams, cries, may thrash, and looks very frightened. Because the child is not fully awake, the child cannot be calmed. When the episode ends, the child returns to full sleep. The good news is children outgrow sleep terrors.

The best way to handle sleep terrors is to stay with your child so that you can protect him or her from any injury caused by thrashing movements. Don’t turn on the lights or try to wake your child. Your child will have no memory of the episode. It may help to put your child to bed earlier in case being overtired is contributing to the problem. If the night terrors are very frequent, discuss the problem with your doctor.

Sleep Talking: Sleep talking includes talking, laughing, and crying out in sleep. Your child is not aware of what is going on. Even if your child answers your questions, he or she will have no memory of the conversation. Sleep talking is so common it is not considered abnormal.

Sleep Walking: Sleep walking may involve only walking or may include a number of other activities, including dressing, raiding the refrigerator, opening doors, and even going up and down stairs. As with night terrors, don’t try to wake your child. Gently guide your child back to bed and feel better knowing your child will have no memory of this in the morning.

Milestones: Physical Skills

Usually around the age of 3, your child becomes much more coordinated when running or going up and down the stairs. By the end of the preschool years, your child can catch a bounced ball most of the time, kick a ball forward, and stand on one foot or hop. Three-year-olds are so active that sometimes they find it easier to substitute a movement for a word. They may run around the room with their arms spread out to indicate flying instead of talking about flying.

Handedness is well established by age 3. If your child prefers to use his or her left hand, don’t try to change it. Lefties do just fine.

Your child’s ability to concentrate allows your child to take advantage of the gains in small muscle control in his or her hands. Your child is able to copy a circle and to scribble quite happily. When playing with blocks, your child can build a tower of nine or more cubes.

This is a great age for crafts. Your child loves to practice cutting, painting, and coloring. For future gardeners, it’s a great time to work in the garden. For future carpenters, nothing beats the thrill of using a real screwdriver.

Self-help skills are much improved. At this age, children can feed themselves, unbutton their clothes, and handle large zippers and snaps.

Play Activities!

How? Find three pictures that show something happening like a boy riding a bike, falling off, and his mother coming to him. Paste the pictures on to 3 x 5 cards. Ask your child what happened first, next, and last.

Why? Practicing placing cards in an order that makes sense will help your child at school.

Ask Your Doctor

Development - Almost 5 Years

Your preschooler may need a developmental evaluation if, as the 5th birthday nears, he or she:

  • has difficulty throwing a ball overhand
  • is unable to jump in place
  • is unable to hold a crayon correctly
  • is unable to stack four blocks
  • won’t separate willingly from parents
  • is not interested in other children
  • is not interested in interactive games
  • responds very little to non-family members
  • has no imaginative play
  • is uncooperative with dressing, sleeping, toilet training
  • has difficulty with self-control when angered or upset
  • is unable to give his or her first and last name
  • does not use plurals or past tense properly
  • does not use “me” and “you” correctly
  • does not speak in sentences of more than three words
  • seems unhappy or sad most of the time

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics


Preschoolers continue to use magical thinking to solve problems or explain things. You’ll be surprised what you learn when you ask your child a “why?” question. For example, your preschooler may tell you that the sun comes up in the morning because that is when it wakes up.

Sometimes an answer alerts you to a possible problem, such as your child believing that his or her anger could make someone ill. Be firm when you explain that emotions don’t cause illness or harm to others.

Preschoolers are not logical thinkers. They believe what their eyes tell them even if it makes no sense. Try this famous experiment with your preschooler to get a better understanding of how your child thinks. Pour water from a tall, thin glass vase into a wide, clear glass bowl. Make sure no water spills. Ask your preschooler which container has more water. Very likely, your child will answer the tall, thin vase (or whichever container appears larger to the child). It’s unlikely that your preschooler will say that the amount of water has not changed and it only looks different.

Even if you point out that no water was added or taken away, your preschooler believes what he or she can see and pays no attention to logic. This is called prelogical thinking and is absolutely normal and charming.

Useful Info: Stuttering

One of the common concerns of parents of preschoolers is stuttering. About 1 in 20 children in this age group stutters. Boys are troubled more than girls. Children tend to stutter when they are tired, upset or talking quickly. Stuttering may actually be an unconscious way for your child to hold a space in the conversation until he or she can get the word or sentence out.

Don’t call attention to stuttering. Ignore it. Most stuttering goes away on its own, usually within two to three months. If your child stutters, it might help if you talk slower or make a point of sitting down when your child talks to you so that your child will not feel hurried.

Warning signs that your child’s stuttering is not likely to be outgrown include your child feeling very self-conscious about stuttering; losing eye contact with the person to whom he or she is speaking while stuttering; frequently repeating words or parts of words; having facial twitches; breathing faster or showing other signs of difficulty in forming words; stuttering for more than six months; or having a family history of a parent or sibling with stuttering problems.

If your child’s stuttering is causing behavior or emotional problems or any of the above warning signs are present, discuss the problem with your doctor.

Major Milestones: Language

If you clap for your preschooler’s new athletic skills, you should give a standing ovation for the marvelous accomplishments your child is making in language.

Consider this:

Age in Years Number of Words in Vocabulary
1 2-4
3 1,000
5 10,000

Language is more than vocabulary, however. Words must be combined into sentences. Between the ages of 2 and 5, the number of words in a sentence usually equals the child’s age (2-word sentences by age 2, 3-word sentences by age 3 and so on to age 5). Children are also picking up grammar. They practice all these skills by talking and asking questions.

Children learn language at different rates. A number of factors influence language development – first-born children may use language sooner than younger siblings, girls may talk earlier than boys, and children whose parents were late talkers may follow in their parents’ footsteps. Active children may be too busy to slow down for a conversation.

The best way to encourage language is by talking and listening to your child – in the car, at the store, at the park, while you’re eating, and when you’re reading a bedtime story to your child. Talk – listen – talk – listen, etc.

Brain Fact

A baby’s brain comes ready-made with a “blueprint” for learning language. Babies learn words by listening and imitating. But, they learn grammar by paying attention to language and by creating rules that seem to fit.

Since all preschoolers make the same kind of mistakes with grammar, it makes sense that human brains share the same language blueprint. For example, children recognize that by adding an “s” to a word, it becomes plural. So naturally they come up with a word like “mouses.” Or by adding “ed” to a word, the word becomes past tense. Using this rule, preschoolers create words like “bringed” and “catched.”

Another common problem children have is using pronouns correctly. To avoid the problem of deciding when to use “I” or “me,” children frequently substitute their own name for the pronoun. Parents contribute to this problem by avoiding pronouns in sentences such as “Mommy has to take care of baby now.”

Useful Info: School Readiness

Your child is ready for school if he or she knows first and last name; knows home address and phone
number; can follow simple instructions; plays well with other children and knows how to take turns; can separate from parents for the time period of a school day; dresses without help; and can use the bathroom without help.

Q: My 3-year-old daughter repeatedly steals her new baby sister’s blanket. Even worse, she lies and says the baby gave her the blanket. Do I have a juvenile delinquent in the making?

A: Preschoolers, especially 3-year-olds, are too young to have an adequate understanding of either truth or ownership to justify being labeled as a liar or a thief. Preschoolers have great difficulty with self-control, and they may take something that they want on impulse. They learn the error of their ways from your negative reaction.

Your child’s explanation for taking the blanket is an explanation that comes from her magical thinking and her imagination. In the situation of a new baby, it’s likely your little one likes the baby’s blanket and hasn’t yet learned that wanting it doesn’t make it hers. This behavior is typical for a 3-year-old.

The next time you give the blanket back to the baby, remind your preschooler that she has her blanket and the baby has a blanket. The baby can’t have her blanket and she can’t have the baby’s blanket. You’ll be helping your child learn an important concept about ownership.

It’s best not to pay too much attention to your child’s cover-up story. By the time she is 5, she’ll understand the difference between something that is true and something that she wants to be true.

Emotional Development

Preschoolers face several challenges in the area of emotional development.

Preschool years are a time of role-playing. Girls become interested in makeup, nail polish and dress-up clothes. They may become interested in fashion dolls. Boys tend to be interested in cars, trucks and action figures with military or space war themes. Girls tend to play “mommy,” and boys tend to play “dad.” Role-play is practice for the future.

Your child may have difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Imaginary friends may come to stay for a while. They usually disappear on their own, replaced by “flesh and blood” playmates. Unfortunately, imaginary monsters are also common at this age and are particularly bothersome at bedtime. Nightlights and reassurance go a long way toward helping your child overcome those fears.

As your child nears age 5, playmates become increasingly important. Your child begins to notice the way that other families do things, which can lead to requests for more privileges and trendy clothing or toys. Your child may experiment with swearing. All of these behaviors are signs that your child is trying to become independent. Your reaction to unacceptable behaviors should separate the behavior from the child. For example, the behavior is “bad,” not the child.

Preschoolers are quite aware of sexuality and may ask questions like “Where do babies come from?” This is also a time when children discover and sometimes “play” with their own bodies.

Safety Habits: Preparing Your Child to Go Out into the World

Safety in the preschool years provides another parenting challenge. Early on, you mastered the fine art of baby proofing. During the toddler years, you earned your halo as a guardian angel. Now it’s time to take on the responsibility of teaching your child the responsibility of staying safe. In the toddler years, your teaching consisted of warnings like “hot,” “don’t touch,” and “no.” In the preschool years, it’s time to teach and enforce safety rules.

The Fabulous Five for Teaching Safety Rules

  1. Set the rules.
  2. Enforce the rules.
  3. Be consistent.
  4. Be reasonable.
  5. Be firm.

The Fabulous Five for Helping Preschoolers Learn

  1. Keep it simple. Think about the safety rules you remember from your childhood. “Look both ways before you cross the street.” “Stop, drop, and roll.” “Buckle up.” It helps to make rules as simple as possible and, when possible, to repeat them using the same words.
  2. Repetition is the glue of learning. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat
  3. Learning can be as easy as playing a game. Teach preschoolers safety rules by playing “what-if” games. First, teach the rule in simple words, and then ask your child a “what-if” question. For example, a fire safety rule for matches and lighters is: “Don’t touch. Tell an adult.” The “what-if” game question might be: “What if you found a lighter at Uncle Jim’s? What would you do?” The preschooler should respond, “Don’t touch. Tell an adult.” Preschoolers like “what-if” games. They like to get the answer right, and they like to hear you praise them for their correct answers.
  4. Success makes success. In addition to praising your child for correct answers in the “what-if” game, praise your child whenever you see him or her using good safety habits. If your preschooler holds onto the handrail when going down the stairs, praise him or her for good safety habits on the stairs. Catch your child doing something right as often as possible so that you’ll have plenty of opportunities for praise.
  5. Be a good role model. Your preschooler wants to be just like you when he or she grows up. Everything you do is being watched, so do things right! Make the rule. Teach the rule. Follow the rule – every time.