There are good reasons not to be too upset when your child isn’t hitting various milestones at the time you expect them to, says the author of The Intuitive Parent. (Photo: Jessica Peterson/Getty Images)
Child development specialists, and the test makers who adapt information from child development studies to incorporate into standardized assessments, often employ the notion of “stages” as a way of classifying progress from infancy to adulthood. Milestones or developmental markers for each stage are often used in checklists or become items on tests. For example, most children begin walking by the age of 12 months, and developmental checklists will include a parent question inquiring when their child started to walk. If a child doesn’t begin walking by the age of eighteen months or so, it may be an indicator that the child’s gross motor development is slower than average.
Stages of gross motor development include rolling over, sitting up, crawling, pulling up to a standing position, walking, and running. But in reality, these aren’t really discrete, sequential stages. When a baby first starts walking, she is also still crawling most of the time; she didn’t suddenly stop crawling when she started to walk. So there is no distinct dividing line between one stage and another; there is instead a transitional phase during which walking increases and crawling decreases. But because the age when a child starts walking can be an indication of overall development, parents are often asked to report the age at which their child first walked. No one, however, asks them when the child stopped crawling!
Why does this matter?
Many developmental checklists and books on child development lay out stages a child passes through, often aligned with precise age levels when children typically reach these stages. Now, tying age to these stages can be useful in determining whether a child is developing differently than others—earlier or later. However, parents reading or hearing about the stages can misunderstand these checklists to be specific timelines and become worried, or even worse, start to panic, if their child doesn’t hit a particular stage “on time.” These stages can also be misused as targets for accelerating development; for example, a parent noticing that the “stage” for first words is around twelve months thinks: Wouldn’t it be great if my child was talking by the time she is eleven or even ten months old?
In truth, there is considerable variation in the range of ages at which even normally developing children reach each stage. There are not precise age cut offs wherein a child who misses the so‑called deadline is necessarily “slow” or “impaired.” For example, it is indeed true that the average age when children start to say words is around twelve months. However, if we were to look at language acquisition in a slightly different way, and asked when most children say their first words, the answer would be a fairly wide age range stretching from ten months to eighteen months. Although it is fine when a child starts talking a bit early, this doesn’t mean that the onset of first words was unusually precocious. Conversely, there is nothing grossly abnormal about a child starting to use words at sixteen or even eighteen months, so parents shouldn’t push the panic button if their child doesn’t achieve that “stage” exactly on their first birthday.
The point here is that using first words is normal somewhere in the range of ten to eighteen months because this is the range in which children start saying their first real words. Whether they start at nine months or eighteen months tells us very little about how smart they will be in kindergarten or later in life. In fact, many highly intelligent people, including famous scientists such as Albert Einstein and Edward Teller, did not begin speaking until well after their second or even their third birthday.
There is also considerable variation in how quickly a skill develops. For some children, first words come in and they add a few words here and there and make steady progress. Other children don’t begin until a bit later but within a few months have added dozens or even hundreds of words and are beginning to speak in sentences. They may even have surpassed children who started using words months earlier than they did.
Developmental stages are simply a set of general guidelines and landmarks. They should never be viewed as strict rules for what any baby should be able to do at a specific age, nor as targets for instruction or educational acceleration in hopes of “wiring the brain” more quickly and beating a mythical average cutoff age level.
In my clinical work with children with developmental disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome, and speech and language disorders, parents occasionally contact me, worried that their child recently passed his or her first birthday without saying their first words. On the one hand, I compliment them for checking in to be sure everything is OK with their toddler. On the other hand, if everything else is going well in terms of the child’s play skills and social skills, I tell the parents it is perfectly fine if their child doesn’t begin using first words until fourteen, sixteen, or even eighteen months of age so long as they start somewhere within the normal range and everything else, such as walking and play skills, is coming along in typical fashion. This is normal variation in development and is in no way a sign of bad parenting or a failure to properly stimulate their child’s brain.
Slow onset of words can be a sign of developmental disabilities such as cognitive impairment, autism, or other speech or language disorders. Parents of these children sometimes feel guilty and remorseful and believe that they should have pushed their child to speak when he or she was younger. Some parents even say that they wish they had forced their child to watch Baby Genius educational videos to increase his or her vocabulary. But these techniques do not accelerate first words; in fact, their use potentially could have slowed things down even more. In our competitive society, these parents sometimes are subjected to well-intended, but misguided advice or even criticism from neighbors, coworkers, and even other family members that “something” should have been sooner (or better). When a child is slow to develop— except in those cases, mercifully rare in politically stable countries with adequate food supplies, when the child has suffered severe malnutrition or neglect—decades of studies have shown that it is not due to poor parenting.
The truth is that virtually no typically developing child is above average or below average in all phases of development. One may learn to talk early but struggle with number concepts later on. Another advances physically, and walks early, but then perhaps talks a bit later. In my own research, I have found that when preschool-age children talk in longer sentences, pronunciation of the sounds in the words they are saying often gets worse. The word “ball” is said with correct pronunciation in short sentences such as “I have a ball.” But when saying something like “Mommy, please throw the bright red beach ball to me,” they may leave off the “l” sound in the longer and more complex sentence. Trade-offs like this are extremely common in development.
When a child makes an advance in one area, another area may not advance (stay steady) or may even regress. This is important to bear in mind because curious children who like to learn things on their own may not necessarily sit still and listen very well. They may be highly intelligent in most ways but may not be able to retell a story or otherwise regurgitate what the preschool teacher talked about that day. Many other children are very adept at listening to and retelling stories—which is great! On the other hand, those same children may not be math whizzes, or may not excel at sports.
There is considerable variation in human development, even among children in the same family.
What does a baby really need to know? That his parents love him, will take care of him, and will encourage him and empower him to learn. This does not require special videos, special toys, or special DVDs or computer programs. There’s no particular skill he must master by some predetermined date, especially by an arbitrary “critical age” of three—or any other specific age. Indeed, despite attempts to accelerate learning, there is no evidence that get-rich-quick learning schemes are translating to learning that is any earlier or any faster than children five years ago, ten years ago, or even twenty years ago.
Adapted from The Intuitive Parent: Why the Best Thing for Your Child Is You by Stephen Camarata, PhD with permission of Current, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Stephen Camarata, 2015.
Stephen Camarata, PhD, has raised seven children and is a professor in the department of hearing and speech sciences and a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He is also an associate professor of special education at Peabody College at Vanderbilt and the author of The Intuitive Parent.