How would I know if my child is “behind”?

How old were you when you first started transferring objects from one hand to the other? What about the exact age in weeks that your partner first drank from a cup as a child? If you don’t know the answers to those questions, it’s probably because, once those moments have passed, they really don’t feel like that big of a deal. Before they happen, though, it can be easy for new parents to get caught up in wondering when certain developmental milestones will happen, partially out of fear of developmental delays, and sometimes partially out of a more vague fear about making sure a baby or toddler “keeps up” with their peers.

Generally, it can be a good idea not to focus too much on milestones, because each child develops at their own pace. On the other hand, though, delays can cause problems later, whether they’re caused by developmental or medical factors, and early treatment can lead to better outcomes. If you’re worried about your child’s development or growth, talk to your pediatrician. They will be able to reassure you, or can look for a medical reason for a delay, and can give a referral to a specialist if that’s necessary.

Types of delay

There are four different types of delay, based on four different categories of development. Children experiencing delays can have delays in any of these categories, or in several of them, depending on the root cause. These types of delays can also be tied together, and can overlap.

  • Cognitive delays: In babies, thinking, learning, and problem-solving is often mostly visible in their interest in and curiosity about the world. Infants tend to be curious about new objects and new people, and like to try to understand how things work.
  • Language development delays: Speech and language is one of the big areas parents put a lot of weight on, which makes sense. It’s also complex – speech requires receptive language (hearing and understanding speech), and expressive language (speaking and communicating). Babies start understanding language very early on, and by around eight months old, babies respond to music, and to short, simple requests and commands like “no” and “come here.” They also start imitating sounds much earlier than they’re able to communicate, using a variety of sounds – this is called babbling. When babies don’t seem to understand their parents’ speech, or when they don’t babble as a way of trying to communicate, it could be a sign of a language delay.
  • Socio-emotional delays: Very young children don’t have a lot of subtlety – they tend to be pretty expressive about their feelings with their parents or guardians, and caregivers tend to have a pretty good idea when a baby is happy or upset. Babies and toddlers aren’t big on sharing yet, can be pushy and bossy in play, generally don’t acknowledge or play with other children for quite a while, and can be very clingy with their parents or familiar caregivers, especially around 9 months old, when they often develop separation anxiety. All of this is completely normal. At this point, babies are still learning to connect socially and emotionally, so it can be hard to pick out a delay.
  • Gross and fine motor delays: Motor skills are probably the most common concern among parents besides language skills, but again, there’s a huge range of normal for motor skills. As a general rule, it’s progress more than timing that’s important for picking up motor skills, but motor skills can also be affected by medical conditions, so talking to a pediatrician about concerns over motor skills can be especially helpful.

Why do delays happen?

Because every child is different, and comes with their own strengths and challenges, developmental delays can happen for an infinite number of reasons, and it often isn’t helpful to try to generalize them. Some delays are temporary, and just need a little extra support to move past, while other delays are more permanent. Early Intervention services are designed to help maximize a child’s potential growth and development, but the goals for each child might be different based on individual needs and challenges.

In the case of hearing loss, for example, early identification, management, and early support can help a child maximize their potential language development. On the other hand, medical problems like neurological or genetic disorders can lead to developmental delays with more complex causes, and might require more long-term support and interventions from a team of specialists and healthcare providers.

How can I tell if my child has a delay?

Parents know their children best, so, in general, if you have concerns that something is wrong, it’s a good idea to  consult with your pediatrician. If you’re not sure whether or not to worry, well-child visits are a great opportunity to ask questions.

As a general rule, it’s also a good idea to have a sense of the range of typical timing for a certain milestone, instead of just knowing the average. An average time isn’t always useful, and can worry parents who don’t need to be worried, when it comes to milestones that can happen at any time over a span of many months and still be completely on track.

Children are most likely to explore, learn, and broaden their horizons when they feel confident about what they’re doing, so it’s a good idea for parents whose children tend to hit milestones on the later side of normal to try not to think too much about timing. Each toddler meets milestones when they're ready. If you do suspect a problem though, Baby‘s doctor is a great resource, and can help come up with the right interventions.

  • Tamara Guo. “Child Development: Is My Child Average or Developmentally Behind?” Day2DayParenting. Thrive Place, LP, July 24 2014. Web.
  • Amanda Morin. “What You Need To Know About Developmental Delays.” Understood., February 18 2014. Web.
  • Amy Nelson. “Delayed Speech or Language Development.” KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation, July 2013. Web.
  • Alice Park. “Study: Toddlers Who Are Slow To Talk Still Develop Normally.” Time. Time, July 4 2011. Web.
  • Andrew J.O. Whitehouse, Monique Robinson, Stephen R. Zubrick. “Late Talking and the Risk for Psychosocial Problems During Childhood and Adolescence.” Pediatrics, June 2011. Web.
  • “Is My Child Falling Behind?” Scholastic. Scholastic, Inc, 2016. Web.
  • “Language Delays in Toddlers: Information for Parents.” HealthyChildren. American Academy of Pediatrics, November 21 2015 Web.
  • “Late Blooming or Language Problem?” ASHA. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 1997-2016. Web.
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