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Motor Skill Delays


Overview

It can be frustrating to hear other moms talk about their babies walking or feeding themselves when your own child doesn't seem to show any inclination toward either. But every child hits milestones at his own pace. Of course, there are cases when a child may need a little extra help and encouragement to master certain skills. Here's how to assess how your child is doing, and what to do if you suspect he's delayed.


What's normal

While pediatricians use certain markers to gauge an idea of how babies are developing, such guidelines aren't set in stone for each child. Some children walk at 9 months and others not until 14 months, but both are just fine. Generally, kids should be able to smile, roll over, and reach for an object at 5 months; pick up small objects between their index finger and thumb by 9 months; sit without support by 8 months; pull to a standing position without help by 10 months; and walk on their own by 14 months.

You may have heard that children develop motor skills and language skills simultaneously. Although this is the pattern for some kids, it's not the case for all. Many work so hard to perfect one ability, such as talking, that they may unintentionally neglect others, like walking, until they're convinced they've mastered the first one.

Reasons behind physical delays

Temperament: More cautious kids often want to know they can do something well before they do it at all. They may think, if I step up onto this chair, how will I get down? They want to know they'll be safe before taking that first tentative step, whether it's crawling, walking, or jumping around  -- so it can take them longer to master a skill.

Natural strengths: Think of your own family  -- is there someone who's the athlete of the group? Someone else who's a talented musician? Individual fortes can show up as early as age 1, so a child who talks early may well end up being a talented writer or orator. One who walks sooner than others and seems naturally coordinated may excel at sports. This doesn't mean that children who are late bloomers in these areas won't thrive in them eventually; in fact, they may observe other kids' skills so carefully that they turn out to be very successful, too.

Siblings: Children with an older sib often reach milestones sooner than expected because they push themselves to keep up. On the flip side, having an older sibling may also mean that milestones come late  -- if, for instance, a child lets his older brother or sister do the reaching for him, fetching him a drink before he goes for it himself.

Body size: Bigger babies might be slower to crawl or walk, simply because they have more weight to maneuver. Those with large heads (in proportion to their height and weight) also tend to take their first steps later.

Being a preemie: Babies born early often take longer than others to reach milestones, but by age 2 they usually catch up to their peers. In fact, pediatricians say that when gauging a preemie's development, you should begin counting from the child's due date, not from her birth date. So a child born three months early should be expected to reach at 6 months the milestones of a 3-month-old.


Ways to help

If your child does seem to be a little behind the curve, there are some things you can do to boost his progress.

Let him know you're there to help. Especially for a cautious child, give him your hand and stay close by while he tries something new, and offer loud praise when he makes a step forward.

Make him work for it. When you play together, put a few of his favorite items just out of reach so he's tempted to crawl, stand up, or point to try to get them. For younger babies, tummy time is especially important, so he can build muscles in his arms, legs, and neck.

Provide a safe but stimulating environment. Having a childproof area where he can crawl around, pull up on objects, and bang things together may do wonders to nudge motor skills along. There's no need to buy expensive toys  -- an empty box, plastic containers and wooden spoons, and an old oatmeal canister are often the most interesting items to a baby or toddler.


When a milestone is late

If a child is delayed reaching one milestone but her other development is progressing on schedule, she's probably just a late bloomer. Some babies even skip crawling entirely and go straight to walking!

Generally, kids who are developmentally delayed show multiple difficulties with body control. These include trouble supporting the head in a baby over 3 months of age, floppy or limp body posture or, at the other extreme, stiff or rigid arms or legs, pushing away or frequently arching the back, or using only one side of the body or just the arms to crawl. In addition to these physical signs, look for behavioral symptoms such as extreme irritability, failure to smile by 3 months of age, or problems with feeding  -- persistent gagging, choking, or pushing soft food out of the mouth after 6 months of age.

If you have any concerns about your child's development, talk to your pediatrician. Obtaining an early diagnosis is vital, since minor problems need treatment before they become more serious. For example, children with weak muscle tone may become uncoordinated and fall a lot. Early intervention can help them move more normally and catch up faster.


Summary

As your child develops physically, he'll hit milestones at his own pace, and not necessarily along the textbook guidelines. You can help to encourage his progress, but in most cases patience is the answer. If more than one of his motor skills is delayed, however, you should tell your pediatrician so she can check for any problems.


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