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Parental Arts

Why You Can Stress Less About Milestones

Filling out development questionnaires at your baby’s well visits can sometimes feel like you’re taking a test—though you’re not sure if it’s you or your child that’s being graded. There’s something so anxiety-inducing about making sure your baby is “on track” (whatever that means), or feeling that they’re somehow behind. But there is a range of “normal” when it comes to meeting those milestones you get quizzed about at the pediatrician, says Dr. Ari Brown, the author of Baby 411. Here’s what you need to know.
Written By
Marnie Schwartz

What milestones are (and aren’t)

As your baby grows and develops, they reach certain achievements, things you can witness or measure that show they are on a normal trajectory of expected childhood development, explains Dr. Rebekah Diamond, a pediatrician in New York City. These “‘milestones” are a tool your pediatrician uses to make sure that your baby’s development is moving along as expected, look for patterns, and catch significant delays.

What milestones are not: A strict timetable. “A child only becomes "delayed" when 90% of children his age should have already reached that milestone,” says Dr. Brown. “For instance, only 50% of children are walking at 12 months of age. But 90% of kids are walking at 15 months of age. So it is totally normal for your 12 month old not to be walking yet, even when half of his daycare class already is.”

And despite parents’ worries, milestones also aren’t a predictor of your child’s future successes or failures, Dr. Diamond points out. A baby who speaks early isn’t necessarily going to do better in school. If your child isn’t walking at 12 months, it doesn’t mean she won’t be athletic.

Tracking your baby’s development

Milestones break down into a few big categories, explains Dr. Diamond. Gross motor skills are things your baby does with his core, trunk, and bigger muscle groups such as rolling, crawling, and eventually walking. Fine motor skills are done with hands and feet, like grabbing, clapping, and self-feeding. There’s also language (understanding and speaking or signing) as well as social and emotional milestones like a first “social smile,” laughing, and playing games like peekaboo.

Your baby’s doctor will check for all of these things at well visits, but if you want to know for yourself how your child’s development compares to what’s expected, stay off the parent Facebook groups and instead consult a true developmental checklist, says Dr. Brown. She includes a version of the Denver Developmental Screening Test in her book, which shows when 90% of babies hit different milestones.

When they track these milestones, pediatricians and other developmental experts are looking for patterns, delays across categories, and significant delays. That’s because catching and treating an issue sooner rather than later can lead to better outcomes. And if development is behind in several areas, it could signify a medical issue, which a doctor will want to catch as soon as possible so it can be addressed, says Dr. Diamond.

When your baby has a delay

If your baby doesn’t meet a milestone as expected, your pediatrician might ask you to check back in a few weeks. Or, for a language-related delay, they may start by checking hearing, says Dr. Brown. They might also refer you to an expert for evaluation. (Every state has a free program for children under age 3.) Your baby might just need what Dr. Diamond referred to as a “development tutor”--an expert who can go through exercises you can do together to help them catch up. She notes that most delays are treatable and kids who get these services often do really well. And if there’s a concern about a medical issue, your child might need additional tests.

We’ve all fallen into the trap of comparing our baby to another, whether it’s their cousin, the child of a friend who shared a video of her 10-month-old walking, or even our other kids. But just because your niece could sit at 5 months and your 8-month-old isn’t there yet doesn’t mean something is wrong. Take a deep breath, familiarize yourself with the checklists so you know when to bring something to your pediatrician’s attention, and stay on track for well visits. The experts will let you know when it’s time to worry. Until then, relish those precious milestone moments—first smiles! first giggles! a first word!—whenever they happen.