Is My Baby “Normal”? Demystifying Developmental Milestones
It’s a common question that many pediatricians hear during well-baby checkups: Is my baby developing normally? We’re so connected to information – from books about developmental milestones to blogs from well-meaning parents who document every hiccup, rollover and first step – it’s almost impossible not to wonder if your child is “on track.” This can generate fear and anxiety that something is wrong or that they’ll be left behind their same-age peers, when in reality there’s probably nothing to worry about.
“I tell parents the only place where ‘normal’ matters is the setting on their washing machine, not the development of baby or toddler,” said Steven Shapiro, DO, chair of the Pediatrics Department at Abington-Jefferson Health. “A natural and consistent progression toward milestones is more important than measuring them at a specific age or date.”
Avoid Comparing Your Child to Others
Your best friend’s baby just took her first step. Even though your child was born three weeks earlier, he’s still content to crawl from room to room. This type of comparison between kids of similar ages is counterproductive and really will only serve to heighten your anxiety level.
Dr. Shapiro shows parents an age chart and draws a wide rectangle to show a range. If a child is hitting the appropriate developmental milestones within that range, they’re perfectly fine. This is the reason why pediatricians will see newborns multiple times during their first year of life, but older children yearly for well visits. Newborns make a lot of progress quickly and need to be monitored closely to make sure they’re hitting milestones, while toddlers and adolescents will hit their milestones over a wider timeframe.
“One place where it can be helpful to compare is between siblings who have the same parents,” said Dr. Shapiro. “In these cases, they are likely to hit physical milestones around the same time.”
Even with siblings, there could be wide variations in other areas, which is perfectly normal. For instance, one brother may develop into a great athlete while the other is better at musical instruments. Birth order can also influence development; the youngest child may speak later since her older siblings answer for her, or may learn to feed herself sooner if her mother is busy tending to the other kids.
Red Flags Parents Should Keep in Mind
Parents should start to do a little detective work with their pediatrician when children fall well outside the typical range for hitting milestones, or if they stop making steady progress toward them. Language development and walking ability are two areas where developmental delays frequently show themselves early on.
“When measuring a toddler’s language ability, we typically hope to understand 50 percent of what they say at two years old, 75 percent by the time they’re three, and everything they say at four,” said Dr. Shapiro.
When it comes to walking, most babies take their first steps between nine and 12 months of age and are walking well by 14 or 15 months old. Much beyond 17 months may be an indication of a delay.
If either the doctor or parent thinks there may be a developmental delay, there are simple diagnostic tests that can be done in the pediatrician’s office that can help. One is called the M-CHAT test, a screening for potential delays that parents will complete with yes or no answers. This helps the doctor develop a good understanding of the child’s strengths and challenges.
“Don’t be led away from your opinions about your child, even by a doctor you know and trust,” advises Dr. Shapiro. “You know them best, so if you think something may be wrong, advocate on their behalf.”
The reason it’s so important to be your child’s advocate is that dealing with potential developmental delays early provides the best outcome. Every child develops differently, and some need an extra push to help them where they need it most. Programs like “Early Intervention” provide those resources, usually free of charge.
If you’re concerned about your child’s development, make an appointment to see your pediatrician today to have your questions answered. It’s better than worrying about something that may not be a problem.
To find an Abington-Jefferson Health pediatrician, call 215-481-MEDI.