How To Spot The Warning Signs Of Developmental Delays In Your Child
And what you should do if you’re worried.
It’s natural as a parent to worry, especially when your child is young and so much about them remains a mystery to you. You know there are developmental milestones they’re supposed to meet — you’ve read all the books, you went to the classes, and you’ve heard about it from your mom friends. And although you know that, more likely than not, your child’s development is on track, it’s easy to convince yourself something’s wrong. So, with the constant internal battle between your logical brain and your worried mom brain, how do you know if your baby really does have developmental delays? What should you do if you suspect as much?
Never underestimate your instincts. At the end of the day, you know your child better than anyone else. But it can also be tough to tell sometimes if what you’re feeling is instinct or just the pure parental fear that comes with having a tiny human. To cut through some of that confusion, Scary Mommy spoke with Dr. Brita DeStefano, Enfamil’s Movement Expert, pediatric physical therapist, and mom to tap into identifying developmental delays and what to do next.
What is a developmental delay?
According to Yale Medicine, a developmental delay is a term used to describe “when a child’s progression through predictable developmental phases slows, stops, or reverses.” Signs of developmental delay can include:
- Poor head and neck control
- Muscle stiffness, floppiness, or spasms
- Difficulty swallowing
- Delayed rolling over, sitting, standing, or walking
- Delayed speech
- Limp or awkward body posture
How do you identify signs of developmental delays in your child without calling the pediatrician every other week about your latest fear?
“I always tell parents to get curious and observant about their child's development so that they can start noticing the things that seem to be typical for their child. And maybe if something starts to come up, they'll notice that it's different than something that was happening the week before. Really we're looking for differences along your child's own kind of pathway and trajectory developmentally. So even the little mini milestones that are happening week to week, they're always kind of progressing,” says Dr. DeStefano.
DeStefano says that parents who are concerned can always “gut check” against published milestone lists from trusted sources, like the CDC. But, ultimately, “the pediatrician is there to be a resource for families and help guide them if they do need to go seek further information or evaluation from a specialist.” So, don’t feel bad about touching base!
If you feel fairly confident there’s a delay, what should your next move be?
No real surprise here: You should give your child’s pediatrician a call first. “They will be very keyed in and familiar with the resources specific to your area,” explains DeStefano. Your pediatrician may then point you to an early intervention specialist.
“A great place that families can turn is to their state's early intervention program. That's a federally mandated program that every state offers, which offers either free or very low-cost developmental therapies for children ages, birth to 3. And then they can also connect parents with school-based services if their child's in the 3 to 5 age group,” says DeStefano, adding that parents can also look into private therapists who can help provide a deeper understanding of a child’s specific developmental needs.
What does an early intervention specialist or private therapist do with a child?
Let’s say you decided to contact your state’s early intervention program. According to DeStefano, “They are going to start first with the evaluation process, which consists of several therapists who use objective measurement tools to look at your child's development across all different areas.” This will include observing your child’s speech and motor development, as well as their social, emotional, and self-help skills. In doing so, they’ll “be able to flag if there are any specific areas that seem to be more of a struggle for your child based on what we would expect for children of that age and their peers.”
You’d also have a service coordinator throughout the process — “somebody whose job is to literally make sure that you get keyed in with all of the specific services and therapies that your child would benefit from, and then help align those and get you set up with them.” The service coordinator would follow your child across the entire time they’re with the early intervention system.
Depending on what the early intervention specialists or therapists find, your child may receive physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, or behavioral therapy. “They even have general early interventionists who just do a lot of play therapy,” says DeStefano. “That system just has so many resources, so it’s really unfortunate that more people aren’t aware of those.”
How can parents combat some of their developmental delay anxiety?
“That is a constant work in progress, I think, for all parents — even myself as a developmental expert,” admits DeStefano. “I first try to remind parents that development is not a race and there is no medal or trophy for achieving milestones earlier rather than later. Our children will follow their own developmental pathway. So, we should be able to celebrate that uniqueness about our children and the fact that they aren't going to look exactly like the child next to them or even their sibling.”
But also, don’t feel ashamed or afraid to seek an expert opinion. “Sometimes these worries and concerns are actually valid, and [parents] should feel able to seek out providers who can help them feel validated and supported through resources that will help decrease that anxiety.”
What are some of the best things a parent can do to encourage healthy development in their child?
“Honestly, in my opinion as a movement specialist, the best thing you can do is give your child room to move and explore. From day one, even having that safe floor space where your baby can just move, they aren't restricted, they can interact with their environment, and just kind of have variety in how they're positioned and playing, that really sets the foundation for being able to gain all of those skills,” says DeStefano, encouraging parents to ensure their child is getting lots of variety — “letting them play on their back, on their side, on their tummy, helping them kind of sit up and be upright, and then rotating the different toys that you have out for them.”
Another integral part of supporting your child’s development? Being an advocate for them.
“I have felt that there maybe was a bit of a stigma around getting help for your child if they needed it, in whatever realm that might be of their development. And I really want to try to break that down so that more parents readily seek those services out — we know that the earlier we intervene, the better the outcome.”