Kimberly Middleton's son, Charles, is 9 months old and hasn't rolled from his back to his stomach. His cousin, born just six days after Charles, did everything first — smiling, cooing, laughing, talking. “They were compared to each other all the time, and I did most of the comparing,” says the Rockledge, Florida, mom. “Charles has just been so slow about physical milestones.”
Sound familiar? Middleton's concerns echo the frustrations experienced by millions of parents when it comes to reaching key development stages at the “right” age. “Milestones can be millstones,” explains infant development expert J. Kevin Nugent Ph.D., director of the Brazelton Institute at Children's Hospital Boston. “It's a terrible burden for parents.” While fretting over month-to-month milestones might seem like the vigilance of a dedicated mama, the simple truth is that babies develop at a pace they're comfortable with, and the factors that affect when a baby will reach a milestone vary. So instead of obsessing, read on for sage advice from pediatricians and moms who've been there — you know, so you won't drive yourself nuts.
Throw out the Rule Book
As an early-childhood education major, Margaret Mair of West Jordan, Utah, knew the development timeline backward and forward. So, when her 18-month-old son, Hudson, wasn't reaching milestones on time, she tried to keep perspective. It didn't work. “I had a hard time not obsessing about it,” she says, especially when at 9 months younger playmates were passing him in certain areas. It didn't seem to matter that Hudson was mastering other milestones older children were just starting to meet. “It's easy to compare other children to yours, to read every book or peruse every website for justification,” says Mair.
Watching for milestones and comparing your child's achievements to those of his peers is perfectly natural. Many times parents aren't even aware they're doing it. Even when they understand that milestones are just guidelines, they still find themselves feeling relieved when their 10-month-old first waves “bye-bye” or their 13-month-old takes that first step — particularly if a friend's baby has been doing it for months.
Developmental milestones are the ways that pediatricians have tried to define the timeline for how children learn to master complex tasks. Here's the (oh-so-frustrating) rub: It's impossible to tell exactly when a child will learn a given skill, says Layla Mohammed M.D., clinical instructor in the Department of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases at the University of Michigan. “Developmental milestones are the ways that pediatricians have tried to define the timeline for how children learn to master complex tasks,” Dr. Mohammed says. In other words, they're guidelines, not deadlines.
There's a reason for those guidelines, though. “Dane was late in saying his first word,” says Ami Frost of Edmond, Oklahoma. “By 16 months, he wasn't saying anything close to words. Many friends told me he was bound to be a late talker because he's a boy, but I felt like something must be wrong.” Frost's pediatrician suggested Dane see a speech therapist, then an ear, nose and throat specialist. One visit with the ENT specialist confirmed there was enough fluid in Dane's ears to affect his hearing. After a quick surgery to insert ear tubes, Dane's speech advanced quickly. The lesson: Go with your gut (or your new-mama intuition!). If you feel there might be a problem, don't hesitate to bring it up to your doctor. (See below on “when to keep score.”) It's better to be told everything's fine after your baby's been checked than to drive yourself crazy worrying about it.
Enjoy the Game
Why do we get so antsy? Deep down, what we are really hoping for when we ask “When? When?” is our babies to grow up to be happy and successful in the world — and to validate the job we're doing as parents. In reality, there's only so much a parent can do to alter baby's developmental timeline. The average brain starts out with 100 billion neurons, and during the first year, trillions of connections are made. But the pattern of those connections is completely different in every baby, as one-of-a-kind as a fingerprint. “That leaves a lot of room for variation in when and how kids learn,” says Joshua Sparrow M.D., a child psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School in Boston and co-author of Touchpoints: Birth to Three, Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development. For example, being an attentive parent may, surprisingly, explain why your baby talks later. Having a big brother whom baby is competing with for attention may explain why she walks sooner. A lot of factors affect development — and not all are within your control.
The best thing to do is accentuate the bright spots. “Our pediatrician was always optimistic at our wellness visits,” says Mair. “He would comment that Hudson was doing exactly what a 2-month-old should be doing, or how fantastic it was that, at 9 months, Hudson was making great strides to walking. That helped me stay positive.” Middleton adds, “I decided to focus on all the things Charles was doing rather than on the things I was waiting for him to do” — like crawling, which he did instead of rolling. Just remember, you're probably already doing exactly what experts say is best to help baby thrive: listening and respecting your child as well as creating a nurturing environment. So put down that book and close that Web browser. Your baby has a team of heavyweights behind him, and once your mind's at ease, those huge milestones might just start to seem like pebbles.