Understanding your child’s developmental milestones

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In your child’s first few years of life, you may hear the phrase “developmental milestones.” But what does that term even mean? And what happens if your child misses a milestone?

What are developmental milestones?

Developmental milestones refer to all the markers that tell you your child is growing and developing. Crawling, waving and smiling are all examples of developmental milestones. If you aren’t familiar with the milestones, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has trackers that can help you understand what your child’s behaviors might mean about their development.

All children develop at their own pace. But some general markers can help you track where your child is at. For example, experts typically divide developmental stages into five periods:

  • Birth to 18 months: During this period, your child may learn to identify you and other familiar people and respond to facial expressions. Children may also learn to stand on their own, take a few steps while holding onto something or say a few words.
  • 18 months to 2 years: During these six months, your child may develop quickly, starting to respond to two-part instructions, playing with other children or “playing pretend.” They may learn to walk and start running.
  • 3 to 5 years: Most children in this age range learn to count to 10, know their own names or recite nursery rhymes. Children may also start having clear preferences and can name their likes and dislikes.
  • 5 to 12 years: Children gain more confidence and develop problem-solving skills. They may increase their reading and math skills, develop hobbies or build friendships.
  • 12 to 18 years: Teenagers gain more and more independence as they grow. They may start forming their own opinions or become interested in dating and sexuality.

What happens if my child isn’t meeting a milestone?

If your child doesn’t meet milestones as expected or meets them at an older age than expected, talk to your child’s pediatrician. Developmental checklists are not a diagnostic tool. In other words, avoid using them to self-diagnose your child. Instead, checklists can give you clues about when to talk to a healthcare provider.

If your child doesn’t meet a milestone as expected, your child’s pediatrician may recommend a developmental assessment. This evaluation could include some observation, structured playtime or parent questionnaires. Evaluations can help healthcare providers understand whether or not your child could benefit from special interventions or therapies. Sometimes, not meeting a specific milestone is no cause for concern. Other times, your provider may connect your child with resources that can help them function better or keep up with their peers.

When to speak up

“The most important point is to speak up any time you are concerned about your child,” explains Theodore Zwerdling, MD, pediatrician with Adventist Health Feather River. Too often, parents feel afraid or hesitant if their child hasn’t met a certain milestone. But the sooner your child’s provider knows about a concern, the sooner they can address it or get appropriate help.

“It’s crucial to be honest and accurate with your child’s pediatrician,” Dr. Zwerdling says. “If the pediatrician asks when your child’s first words were and you are a bit vague on the timeline, we don’t have the information we need to help.”

Dr. Zwerdling also notes that your pediatrician is there to help alleviate concerns and be an expert resource. “There’s nothing wrong with talking with your friends, mother or sister about your child’s development,” he says. “But it’s not the end-all be-all. It’s the same with online information. It can be a starting point, but a trusted healthcare professional can help you put that information into context.”

If you are seeking a pediatrician or other specialist, find a provider near you today.