Terms like "child development milestones" can cause anxiety in some parents. It's natural to compare your child's skills to the ones of children around their age, but doing so rarely yields good results. Still, those key milestones are essential to identifying potential delays and intervening if necessary.
Along with their pediatrician and their child's educators, parents should keep child developmental milestones in mind as their child grows and learns, raising concerns as they appear. But, especially for first-time parents, it can be tough to know what's typical and what isn't: Enter the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who updated their guidelines for developmental milestones for the first time in nearly 20 years in late February.
"This is notable," says Dr. Amy Jo Newmeyer, chief of behavioral and developmental pediatrics at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. "These milestones aren't updated very often. The latest updates are designed to lessen uncertainty about whether a child might have a significant delay or if they might just be in the lower end of the typical range of development."
Allison Tsomos, vice president of operations of Celebree School, a national early education franchise, agrees. "The CDC milestones have been unchanged for many years," Tsomos tells Yahoo Life, "and these updates are especially important for parents of older children who may not have been assessed according to the same milestone guidelines."
What should parents know about the updated developmental milestone guidelines?
So what, exactly, has changed?
Previously, the percentage of children who typically reach certain milestones started at 50 percent. The new guidelines widen those expectations, asserting most children — 75 percent instead of 50 — should be able to reach certain achievements in development by a specific age.
The CDC divides these milestones into several categories for each age, including social and emotional behaviors, language and communication skills, cognitive abilities and physical development and movement.
For example, by the time a child is 6 months old, they should be able to recognize familiar people, laugh, reach for a toy, roll from their tummy to their back and push straight up with their arms when lying on their belly. By age 2, they should point to objects in a book when prompted, say two words together in a short phrase, kick a ball and use switches, knobs and buttons on a toy. A 5 year old should do things like follow rules, sing and dance, hop on one foot and count to 10.
By updating the guidelines to include tasks 75 percent of children meet instead of half, the CDC hopes parents, pediatricians and educators will recognize significant developmental delays earlier, leading to earlier diagnoses for concerns like speech development delays and autism.
How can parents best help care providers assess their kids?
In addition to checking their child's abilities against the CDC guidelines, pediatricians are a great resource for making sure everything checks out: When parents take their child for scheduled well-child exams, they should be asked to fill out a developmental screening checklist before seeing the doctor.
Newmeyer says it's important to be honest and thorough when completing those forms, as it helps pediatricians get a view of the complete picture.
"This is a set of questions about areas of your child's development like motor skills, language skills and cognitive skills," says Newmeyer. "If your child isn't meeting those milestones, pediatricians will talk to you about potential next steps, like occupational or speech therapy or treatment."
Why is early developmental delay detection so important?
Research makes clear that the earlier developmental delays are identified and treatment or therapy begins, the better the outcome. For example, a 2009 study concluded that very young children with autism — as young as 18 months old — saw significant gains in IQ score, communication and language ability and social interaction when they participated in an early-intervention program.
The study's lead author and chief science officer at Autism Speaks, Dr. Geraldine Dawson, said in a statement, "By starting as soon as the toddler is diagnosed, we hope to maximize the positive impact of the intervention." Dawson explained that because infant and toddler brains are "quite malleable," early intervention can capitalize on the incredible amount of knowledge children soak up by the time they're ready for school.
Tsomos also touts the importance of early intervention by educators as the key to helping children who might be developing later than their peers. "Teachers are constantly unofficially assessing children according to the typical behaviors of the age group they are teaching," she says.
"If they have cause to believe a child is not on pace to hit certain milestones, an official assessment should be completed," Tsomos adds. "That assessment should be shared with the child's pediatrician. Early intervention is the best accelerator to development."
How can parents best track their child's milestones between doctor visits?
Newmeyer suggests parents download the CDC's free milestone tracker app, which can help parents keep tabs on their child's development from ages 2 months through 5 years old.
"The app also offers pictures and videos to help clarify what skills children should have at each age or step in development," she says. "It gives a list of developmental activities parents can do at home, too."
If there is a developmental delay, physical, speech and occupational therapists are a child's best tools for success, according to Tsomos, who adds that those can only be accessed when a pediatrician determines their necessity. "If a child is not meeting physical milestones, a physical therapist should provide activities to improve the likelihood of achievement," Tsomos explains. "In addition to providing services directly to the child, [therapists] will provide advice and activities to parents and educators to encourage a child's development in all environments and times of day."
Tsomos also recommends parents spend time finding a high-quality preschool to prepare their children for elementary school. "Not only will children have a structured environment of age-appropriate experiences in the various domains," she says, "but there will also be qualified teachers assessing their development according to the CDC milestones and providing feedback to parents."
Newmeyer says the most important thing parents should do if they're concerned their child isn't meeting developmental milestones is talk to their pediatrician. "Don't wait until your next scheduled well-child visit," she warns. "Reach out to your child's doctor for a sooner appointment to specifically discuss any concerns you might have."
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