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Be Well, Be Well Informed

A Look at Early Child Development

Posted on Apr 14, 2015

Mom and child with book

Crawling, walking and talking are just a few of a child’s developmental milestones parents eagerly anticipate. But an overabundance of developmental details just a click away on the Internet and other parents touting their children’s advances can make parents anxious about their own child’s progress. So when should you be concerned? Brian Tang, M.D., a specialist in behavioral and developmental pediatrics at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, answers questions parents frequently ask about their child’s development.

How do I know if my child is on track when it comes to developmental milestones?

Think of developmental milestones as guide posts rather than definite targets your child should reach. Much as each child has his own unique personality, he has his own pace for reaching developmental stages. In fact there is a wide range in what’s perfectly normal. In addition, the way a child develops is not a linear process. Instead there are plateaus when nothing much seems to happen and spikes when a child may suddenly learn to do several things at once.

Regular well-child examinations with your child’s doctor are an important way to make sure your child is on track when it comes to healthy development. So don’t skip any of the office visits your child’s doctor recommends. At each visit your child’s doctor will ask you questions about your child’s development and screen your child’s physical and behavioral abilities. This ensures early detection of any developmental issues and prompt referral for treatment. Early detection of any developmental delays, especially in children under three, can make a tremendous difference in your child being able to catch up.

Most importantly, trust your instincts when it comes to your child’s development – you know your child best. You can get a lot of information from simple informal observations of your child, especially when he is around other children. Extremely disruptive behavior can also be a red flag for an underlying developmental issue.

What should I do if I’m worried about my daughter’s development?

The first step is to speak to your child’s doctor. He or she will evaluate your child and if necessary refer her to a pediatric specialist in developmental issues for further evaluation or a therapist, such as a speech therapist for speech delays, who can help your daughter catch up.

If there is a suspected developmental delay and your daughter is under 3 years old, she is also eligible for evaluation and treatment through the California Department of Developmental Services’ Early Start program. This early intervention program brings together teams of service coordinators, health care providers, therapists and parent resource guides to provide early intervention and support services for young children from birth to three years of age. Parents can either self-refer themselves into the program or be referred by their child’s doctor.

My child is delayed in his speech, could he be autistic?

There are many reasons for delayed speech and language development. If your son is doing well in other respects, it’s unlikely that he is autistic. Autism is a very complex disorder, and a child with autism will demonstrate many other symptoms in addition to delayed speech. Some of these include:

  • Problems with social interaction, including difficulty using non-verbal gestures such as pointing and eye contact
  • Difficulty sharing enjoyment with others
  • Inability to engage in conversations or activities with others
  • Difficulty with pretend play or imitation
  • Restrictive and repetitive behaviors and interests
  • Parents find it hard to engage the child

Unlike a child who is autistic, young children with speech and language delays due to other causes are often excellent non-verbal communicators. For example, by pointing, gesturing and using facial expressions they can hold “conversations” with their parents and peers without using a single word.

What can I do to encourage my child’s healthy development?

One of the very best things you can do to support your child’s healthy development is to limit screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends children spend no more than two hours per day engaging with electronic entertainment, and ideally only with high-quality educational content. For children under age two, the AAP recommends no screen time at all.

Instead your child will benefit most from these activities:

  • Read to your child regularly, using intonation and adding gestures so she hears a wide range of ways words and speech are used. Singing and saying rhymes are also good stimulation.
  • Think of yourself as a play-by-play announcer. Whether at the park or the grocery store, point out colors, shapes and names, describe what you are seeing out loud. Be expressive and use body language to make it interesting and fun.
  • Be active. Take your child for a walk around the neighborhood, go to the park and let your child explore different terrains in a safe environment.
  • Give your child plenty of opportunities to spend time with other children so he can learn how to interact appropriately and make friends.

Brian Tang, M.D.Brian Tang, M.D., is a board-certified specialist in developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.