Signs of developmental delays

One of the many exciting things about watching a baby grow is watching them meet developmental milestones and then breeze right past them. When children seem to be taking a little longer than expected to reach milestones, though, some of that excitement can turn into worry. Variation in the timing of when children reach milestones is completely normal, but at a certain point, “a little bit later” can start to turn into a developmental delay. Children with developmental delays can benefit a lot from Early Intervention therapies, so it’s important to catch potential delays as soon as possible.

What do developmental delays look like?

Most children who are a little late in certain areas of their development catch up on their own. However, there are cases in which delays can be signs of underlying medical conditions. Even when doctors can’t pinpoint the reason for a delay, children with delays often benefit from Early Intervention, a program that conducts evaluations and treatments by speech and language pathologists, and occupational and physical therapists. They also offer social groups/play groups if a child needs help in developing social skills.  

In the U.S., children 36 months old or younger can get Early Intervention services through the state. These support services can help children develop the skills they need, whether those are physical, emotional, cognitive, problems with communication, or self-help skills like eating or dressing. 

Developmental delays can begin at any point during a child’s development, and can have an impact that lasts through adulthood. 

There are several different types of developmental delays, although they often overlap, since a delay in one area of development can often get in the way of another.

  • Cognitive development delays: Delays in thinking, memory, and problem-solving are often difficult to see when children are very young, and sometimes aren’t clear until school-age. Infants this age are generally fascinated by the world, though, and will stare at unfamiliar faces, follow toys with their eyes, explore by putting things in their mouths, and reach for faces and toys.
  • Motor development delays: These are the delays many parents are on the lookout for, since they’re the delays in movement. The difference between a gross motor delay and a fine motor delay is the type of muscle group that’s affected. Gross motor delays, which affect large muscle groups, may cause a child to be delayed in rolling over, or learning to walk. Small motor delays, on the other hand, may cause children to have trouble holding small objects, which can lead to trouble holding a pencil or crayon, or to issues with self-feeding. Delays in fine and gross motor skills could be a sign of an underlying genetic, neurological or muscular disorder. On the other hand, some children just need extra time and support to master something.
  • Socio-emotional delays: Social skills are a big part of emotional development as children grow, and are demonstrated in the way children relate to other children, caregivers, and to their own feelings. Between 3 to 6 months old, children smile spontaneously at sights and sounds, stop crying when soothed, recognize caregivers by looking at them, and form attachment to caregivers. Lack of attachment to caregivers or habitual lack of smiling could indicate an underlying socio-emotional delay which could be part of a global developmental delay.
  • Language development delays: Delays in speech and language aren’t as simple as waiting longer for a first word. Delays in speech and language can be problems with receptive language, or understanding the words children hear, as well as expressive language, or speech. Between 3 and 6 months, a baby’s receptive language skills include looking at someone when they’re talking and responding to their name. Expressive language around this age includes babbling or vocalizing when they are spoken to, laughing out loud, and babbling or vocalizing to themself when they&;s alone. Lack of vocalizing, or lack of response to language could be a sign of difficulty hearing, or could indicate a language delay.

How are developmental delays diagnosed?

Many parents worry that their children might have developmental delays when they notice their children meeting milestones a little on the later side, but developmental delays are more distinctive than milestones being “a little later.” 

Parents are usually the first people to notice a delay (although not always), but developmental delays do need to be diagnosed by a doctor. Pediatricians use specific guidelines to diagnose developmental delays, and can examine children for physical causes of delays and refer them to specialists or Early Intervention centers. Pediatricians regularly monitor babies and toddlers for developmental delays during well-child visits, especially visits in months 9, 18, 24, and 30, to ensure that children receive prompt evaluation and services if they’re needed.

In fact, screening for delays is one of the most important reasons for well-child visits, right along with vaccinations. According to the National Study of Children’s Health by the CDC, if children aren’t regularly screened for developmental issues by a healthcare provider, only 30% of children with developmental issues are identified before kindergarten. Early Intervention that starts before kindergarten helps to ensure that families are prepared to meet their children’s unique needs and challenges as they grow, as well as helping children start to catch up to their peers before starting school.  

U.S. law mandates that pediatricians refer children with suspected or confirmed delays to Early Intervention systems in a timely manner, so if your child’s pediatrician suspects they might have a delay, they will probably refer Baby for a formal evaluation.

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