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Real-World Milestones

"Malcolm is walking," I told my husband, Alex, when he arrived home from work one Friday evening. "And Joshua has both 'Mama' and 'Dada' down pat."

Malcolm and Joshua are not our children; they're kids in our playgroup. Our child is Ezra, who at 13 months old was not walking or talking yet.

"Do you think there's something wrong with him?" I asked Alex.

"I don't know," he said. "Maybe. Maybe it was that table we refinished when you were pregnant. Maybe it was all the candy bars you ate."

While we commiserated, Ezra, a perfectly healthy little boy, stood at our knees, babbling, yanking board books off the coffee table, and smiling as they hit the floor. He was being quite charming, but we were despondent. Our son, we were thinking, last again.

We understood that Ezra's development fell squarely within the range of normal. He had done nothing to concern an expert. But that doesn't mean my husband and I didn't worry: Was he going to be last at everything his whole life? I couldn't help but feel over-the-top anxiety about it.

Chances are you know just what I'm talking about. Waiting for that first babble or watching for that first step can turn otherwise relaxed parents -- even those who don't have a competitive bone in their bodies -- into handwringers who keep close tabs on how their tot stacks up against his peers. It's okay to occasionally wake up at 3 a.m. worrying if your baby will crawl (isn't that a rite of motherhood?). Still, you can stop milestone anxiety from getting the best of you with these tips on how to accept it, deal with it, and move on.

Discovering the roots
On some level, it's pure instinct. Humans, like all mammals, are "wired to keenly protect their kids," says Joshua Sparrow, M.D., a child psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. The greater our investment in our offsprings' success, the more likely our genes will make it on to the next generation, says Dr. Sparrow. If you look back 20,000 years, parents put all their protective energy into keeping their babies alive -- safe from starvation, a brutal wind, or a predator's deadly grasp. Day-to-day survival is no longer high on our list of concerns, so we have the luxury of focusing instead on our kids' futures. Watching for milestones is simply one way we do that. So it's perfectly natural for us to feel relieved when our 10-month-old first waves "bye-bye," or to try to coax our 13-month-old to let go of our hands and take a step. It's even understandable that we get a little antsy if reaching a milestone seems to take longer than we expect. After all, deep down, what we are really hoping for when we ask "When? When?" is for our babies to grow up to be happy and successful in the world.

Getting over comparisons
When Eliza Thomas of Montpelier, Vermont, traveled to China to adopt her daughter, Amelia, she slipped a copy of the Denver Developmental Screening Test into her suitcase. A clinical tool used by child-development experts, it told her when babies typically smile, when they might roll over and talk -- and every other milestone you can imagine. Her pediatrician, who had given her the test for reference, cautioned her not to take it too seriously, especially because babies who spend their early months in orphanages tend to have delays at first. But Thomas, who was about to become a first-time mom, couldn't help herself.

"I didn't know anything about babies," she recalls. "And I had all these questions. Had my daughter been fed enough? Was she healthy? What was her genetic background?" In the face of all these unknowns, the new mom clung to the screening test. "There's something irresistible about numbers and charts," she notes. At the orphanage where Thomas met her 5-month-old daughter, she encountered a sickly, underweight, unsmiling baby. "I cried a lot," she admits. "But my pediatrician told me to just hold her, that she probably hadn't gotten enough physical contact."

At home in Vermont, the smiles came quickly, as did a determined gaze that gave Thomas faith. But still she worried. "I'd consult the chart and see that she should be crawling by now, or playing patty-cake, or be able to say five or more words, and she just wasn't," she says.

It wasn't until Amelia was a toddler that Thomas relaxed. "I realized that even though Amelia might be behind her peers in walking and talking, she kept making progress, and that's what mattered," says Thomas. Today, Amelia's a boisterous, talkative kid with no delays, and Thomas is the one straining to keep up.

Tuning in to your baby
The most reassuring piece of science to remember: The brain is born with 100 billion neurons, and during the first year, 1,000 trillion 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 Dr. Sparrow.

Environment plays a role in development, too. For instance, being an attentive parent may, surprisingly, explain why your baby talks later. If your son points to the countertop, and you patiently offer him item after item until you come to the sippy cup he wants, he may feel content, at least for now, simply using his body language to communicate.

Nor are milestones crystal balls, as parents of older kids can tell you. A baby who toddles at 10 months is no more likely to become an all-star soccer player than the baby who doesn't take his first steps until 16 months. With Ezra, I waited, and as it turns out, that's all I needed to do. He took his first wobbly steps when he was just shy of 14 months old, well within the average range for walking. Within days, he was trotting all over the house as if he had always known how. Walking, check.

Next, I thought, "Just when are those words coming?"

Deb Abramson lives in Asheville, North Carolina. Now a mom of three, she's relaxed about milestones.