Many parents worry about their child’s development. I’ve been asked to write more about children’s developmental milestones and “when to worry.” It’s a common concern and seems to cause a lot of anxiety. When we refer to developmental milestones, we’re talking about a list of things most children eventually learn. We know at which ages many typically-developing kids learn these things. This includes skills like rolling as an infant, speaking in sentences as a toddler, etc. Today, I’ll discuss what to do if you’re concerned, why milestones matter, and how to best support your child’s development overall.
What to Do if You’re Concerned Your Child Isn’t Meeting Milestones
If you’re reviewing a development checklist on the CDC, another online resource, handouts from your pediatrician, or just talking with other parents and you’re worried: Ask for an evaluation. I don’t suggest googling into the night.
We monitor milestones so that if a child needs extra support, they can get it. This is why pediatricians pay attention to development. There are windows of time in which some extra help can make a big difference. Occasionally, discussing milestones may lead to more complex issues. We’re here to help with that too. So, if you’re concerned, just ask.
You can start with your child’s pediatrician. If needed, they can make referrals to speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, etc. Or, they may be able to discuss your child’s development in a lot more detail and provide some reassurance.
Then, follow the recommended advice.
If you don’t like or agree with the advice, get another opinion. If something still feels off, request another evaluation. No one knows your child as well as you. Please do not worry about offending an expert if you ask for a second opinion.
In the United States, the Early Intervention Program provides free evaluations for children under age 3 years. Parents can refer children themselves without a physician referral. (Search the name of your state and “early intervention” to find the appropriate website for you).
For children over age 3, many school districts also offer the same evaluations and services.
If your family agrees to therapy or home exercises, follow through with the suggestions. Then, if you’re following up on recommendations or you have been satisfactorily reassured:
Accept, love and be present for your child where they are today.
In this moment. Right now.
Fully accept them. Enjoy all the little nuances and quirks that make them who they are. Milestones exist and each child will still develop at their own pace.
Three reasons full acceptance helps:
In my experience as a parent, it’s actually more enjoyable to just be with my child and engage with them. This is in contrast to trying to get them to achieve a specific goal. I admit that sometimes I’ve been more task-oriented. “Roll, baby roll!” Or “Grab this toy. Reach, baby, reach!” And, when they’re older: “Let’s sound out this word again. Just try one more time . . . (even though you’re clearly over it).”
What actually takes place may not change. (The baby will roll or not. The reader will try to read or not). However, the mindset of the parent is different. We aren’t going to will our baby to roll over. So, we can simply observe the way they stretch or tilt their head. We can marvel at those movements happening before our eyes. Compare this to silently yearning for that leg to also flip over.
2. Children know the difference.
Personally, I think children can sense a difference between full acceptance and someone expecting them to be at a place they are not. I say this based on my own experience working in an elementary school, talking with many parents, and in observations with my children. Can we extrapolate this to a high school student? If a student is striving for good grades, is it more helpful to support them where they are or to constantly point out where they are not?
3. Ease of learning
Thirdly, for many kids (and adults), learning a new skill takes place best when someone feels comfortable and safe. Perhaps they’re more willing to try something new. Maybe they can test the waters without concern of a critique. Or, a baby may just reach with their leg for the joy and experimentation of it. Not only is being present more enjoyable and loving, it also may be more helpful to our children’s development. It’s ironic that they may be more likely to learn when we’re not actively asking them to learn.
Again, this presence and acceptance is also possible while following any therapist recommendations. So, even for a child with delays that need to be addressed, I still recommend both acceptance and following expert advice.
What We Can Do to Foster A Child’s Overall Development
All this being said, a child may not learn to stack blocks, write their name, and read with no other input. There are a few concrete thing parents can do to foster development.
First, prepare the environment.
It’s a Montessori term, a reminder that being aware of milestones is still useful. If we can roughly anticipate what many kids learn at a certain age, we can prepare the environment. We can offer supplies if needed. A baby will need some free time on the floor if they are going to learn how to roll over. If your child is roughly around the age many children start to scribble, consider offering a crayon. If they’re the age many kids put a shirt on themselves, consider letting them try on their own.
We can do this without any extra pressure on the child.
Second, talk and read with your child.
Starting in infancy, read together. The words and books are important, but the emotional connection is priceless. It can lay the groundwork for a bond that will support more learning. Back and forth conversation between an adult and a child benefits many aspects of development. A key window to have these conversations is between 18-24 months of age. Engage in conversation whenever possible, trying to listen and respond to your child.
Third, be patient.
Be patient as a child learns. Allow them the time needed to try new things. Getting dressed is an example. First, it’s helpful to know that around age 3 years, many children start to put on and take off a shirt by themselves. So, we can prepare the environment by allowing our child to attempt getting dressed. At first, we can choose a shirt without buttons to maximize success.
And then, we need to allow enough time for the child to make attempts without feeling rushed. This may mean adding a 20 minute buffer to getting out the door in order for our 3yo to “struggle” without any extra pressure. We parents may need to learn some deep breathing techniques or have a concrete plan in place to give our child plenty of time. Please understand I feel this deeply. In my family, I no longer pretend something can be done quickly as we head out the door.
Each child develops at their own unique and individual pace. We can support them by creating a place that fosters learning, reading with them, conversing with them, and being exquisitely patient as they develop. However, if a parent is ever concerned about development, they should not delay in seeking more evaluation. A pediatrician or a state’s Early Intervention Program are both fine starting points. It’s possible to both provide help and fully accept our child where they are.