What is Developmental Delay in Children?
Medical experts have developed checklists of "developmental milestones." These milestones describe skill sets that children should meet by certain ages. Your child’s ability to crawl, sit up, speak, and hold objects—and even throw tantrums—are a few examples.
But what if your child doesn’t seem to be meeting the averages? It’s possible that he may be affected by a condition called developmental delays.
There’s also another type of developmental condition, which involves regression. You may observe that your child seems to have lost certain skills, either due to outside influences (e.g., accidents or toxins) or to deliberate regressive behavior (like thumb sucking or deliberate and inappropriate urination). If so, she may be affected by what is called developmental regression.
What are the signs and symptoms of Developmental Delay in Children?
Developmental delays occur at different life stages. For example, at a certain age your child should be crawling. You may not notice, though, that your child isn’t crawling as you’d expect until he reaches the age when that should be a mastered skill.
Another example: By two months of age, your child should start smiling at others, make gurgling sounds, moving her head toward sounds, and start pushing up on the arms so that her head is up.
By one year of age, a child should be able to talk with single words, recognize ordinary things like a spoon, and even throw tantrums (a part of emotional development).
Understand that experts base developmental skills on averages, but if your child seems to take longer to mature than what’s generally accepted as normal, then there could be a problem.
If your child has already been diagnosed with a disabling condition, such as cerebral palsy or autism, you should be prepared for the kind of developmental delays that tend to be common with such conditions. Children with autism, for example, tend to avoid eye contact and stay focused on the same repetitive actions.
Take early action
Your baby’s doctor will look for developmental advancements during regular check-ups. Another great information resource is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website. The site offers a complete list of milestones that children should reach by specific ages. The CDC encourages you to learn the signs, so that you can act early if a problem arises. Early action can lead to effective intervention.
How is Developmental Delay in Children diagnosed?
Currently, no lab or blood tests can predict developmental delays. Instead, your child’s progress can be gauged by developmental monitoring. Your doctor—and you—can recognize a developmental problem by closely observing your child. In this way, you can determine if he is reaching the appropriate developmental milestones. For instance, at certain ages, your child should be crawling or following an object with her eyes. Meanwhile, your family physician will check the more complex areas such as reflexes and hearing.
When your child is old enough, the physician can work with him directly, observing how he works with someone else.
Developmental screening is the most basic kind of testing. An expert—often your child’s doctor—asks questions that help determine how well she speaks and behaves.
If the physician suspects any problems with your child’s development, she may refer the case to an expert who can take your child through a much more extensive battery of tests. This is called developmental evaluation.
The earlier your child is tested and diagnosed the better, since it can lead to earlier access to the proper course of treatment – and enhanced quality of life for your baby.
What are the causes of Developmental Delay in Children?
Children exhibit developmental issues for a variety of reasons, including:
- Genetics (e.g., Down’s syndrome)
- The mother engaging in poor prenatal practices (e.g., smoking, drinking alcohol)
- Head trauma
- Prenatal exposure by the mother to toxins (including environmental toxins) or the child’s exposure to toxins after birth
- Low birth weight
- Premature birth
- Untreated jaundice in newborns
Infections are a common cause of disorders. For example, experts estimate that 25% of hearing loss is due to babies’ exposure to infections during pregnancy.
With developmental regression, your child may appear to be developing as expected but then seems to start losing certain skills. This regression can be caused by injury. Children who have suffered head trauma, for example, may no longer speak as well as you had witnessed earlier.
Sometimes regression is a personal fight by children to take control of their environment. Your child may go back to sleeping with a stuffed animal in order to feel secure after a death in the family, a divorce, or relocation to a new home.
How is Developmental Delay in Children treated?
Any effective treatment plan will consider your child’s unique qualities. This helps determine the best—and most personalized—course of action.
What type of therapy?
Three factors indicate the kind of therapies that might be best for your child:
- What has caused your child’s delay?
- In what stage is your child’s delay?
- Has your child now been diagnosed with a specific disease or condition?
For example, a child who has had a hearing loss, but not seizures, will need a different kind of treatment than would a child with both. And the overall treatment for either of those children most likely will be different from the regimen designed for a child with cerebral palsy.
It’s critical that any signs of developmental delays or regression are recognized immediately, so that early intervention takes place. You want your child to begin the proper kind of treatment ASAP.
What treatments are available for my child?
Treatments generally include
- Speech and language therapy, to enhance communication skills
- Occupational therapy (OT), which allows children to learn and enhance fine motor skills needed for daily living, like dressing, eating, and bathing
- Physical therapy (PT) – which involves learning and enhancing physical capabilities, including walking, jumping, good balance, and holding things
- Behavior therapy – which is used to minimize and correct negative behaviors such as throwing tantrums, or refusing to interact socially or hitting others.
Periodically, medications or surgery might be advisable, but this is determined by the root cause of a child’s developmental problems.