Using developmental milestones to track and encourage your baby's progress
You may have come across the term “developmental milestones” in your day-to-day activities – chatting with a fellow parent/friend over coffee, reading a new parent blog, or perusing a baby book. This term can carry a lot of weight and you might be confused about what exactly it means.
As a pediatrician, paying attention to how your baby is progressing through development is something I recommend. You know your baby best and are there for every “first” from smiling to walking! Tracking developmental milestones can be a helpful tool for overall well-being, as can having a thorough understanding of what these guidelines do and don’t mean.
What are developmental milestones?
Developmental milestones are skills that babies tend to develop around the same time as other babies. One of the most interesting things about babies is that their overall growth and development is somewhat predictable. There’s a HUGE range of what is considered “normal” – after all, every baby has their own personality – but developmental progress is a sign of overall infant and child well-being. Knowing what milestone skills to expect can make it fun and exciting to interact with your baby at each stage of infancy and early childhood.
Milestone skills also help doctors to be able to pick up on when development is not going according to plan. They serve as a helpful tool for tracking progress the same way that growth in tracked through measuring weight, length and head circumference over time.
How are developmental milestones tracked?
Your pediatrician or family doctor may use a tool called a developmental checklist to screen where your baby is in four key areas of development:
- Fine motor skills - small movements, such as picking up a piece of food with two fingers, using a fork and spoon, or learning to scribble
- Gross motor skills - movements involving the whole body such as learning to sit and crawl, pulling to stand, and taking those first steps
- Language skills - starting to coo, babble or say those first words, then putting words together to form short sentences
- Social/emotional skills - making eye contact, playing peek-a-boo, and learning to take turns or play with peers
Because development is so predictable, if your baby’s progress is a bit “off,” it may be a clue that help is needed. Do not fear – there is lots of help to be found! Also, not all delays in development are a sign of a larger issue.
If your pediatrician has a concern, they may consult with a developmental pediatrician for further formal testing or may refer your baby to receive therapy services (physical, occupational or speech therapy, for example) depending on the area of need identified. They will discuss this with you and specifically point out which part of development is an area of focus for further care.
What can parents do?
My number one piece of advice is to enjoy your baby. It’s really easy, especially within your parent network, to compare what your baby is doing to other babies. Traditionally, if a baby is really quick in one area of development, they may be still working on another. A chatty baby may prefer to sit still and observe the world around them while a busy baby may be quieter. It’s very hard to be GREAT at everything! Celebrate the differences between babies and highlight each baby’s strengths.
Any concerns you have should be discussed with your baby’s pediatrician or family doctor. Specifically, I always want to hear about a loss of a previously mastered skill or if a parent or caregiver has noticed that a baby is “lagging” in more than one developmental area. There are apps and online checklists available to keep track of a baby’s developmental progress and help with overall monitoring.
Do not fret if your baby was born prematurely – We’ll use their “corrected age” to determine where they should fall developmentally.
How can parents help keep things on track?
Play is so important for encouraging brain building and development. The Center for the Developing Child of Harvard University recommends the “Serve and Return” approach. This means that you meet your baby’s cues (babbling, gestures or specific words) with eye contact and shared attention (hugs, words of praise, excitement). The back and forth interaction – similar to what happens in a tennis match – fosters strengthened bonding, attachment and rich developmental exchanges.
Sing, play, read and talk to your child often.
Look for opportunities in daily outings to keep your baby engaged throughout errands and what they experience in their daily life. Tasks like walking through the grocery store offer a huge array of things for babies to take in – sounds, smells, textures and bright colors.
It’s not uncommon for a baby or young child to have a favorite book that they like to hear over, and over, and yes, over again! That repetition is critical for early brain development. So, know that it is normal to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the 30th or 300th time!
Whenever possible, avoid screens such as tablets, smartphones and TVs for all children under 2 years of age. We are learning that early screen exposure is harmful to children’s development as it allows them to be passive as opposed to active participants in learning. Having a device on also reduces parents’ interactions with their child. Studies show that early screen time can decrease language development, increase inattention and lead to decreased sleep.
All this being said, no parent should feel that any developmental delays are their fault. There are numerous factors that influence each child’s developmental path. There are also lots of professionals and support to help, if needed!
Again, remember to ENJOY YOUR BABY and read to them early and often.
By Dr. Tiffany Kimbrough, pediatrician
Why to Avoid TV for Infants & Toddlers (Healthychildren.org)
5 Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return (Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University)