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The Reassuring Truth About Late Bloomers

When my son Michael was 10 months old, he stood up in his crib and yelled his first word: "Mom." I came running. Then he started saying it at the kitchen table, in the grocery store, every chance he could. My husband and I were thrilled. What we didn't know then was that this was one of the few words Michael would say for the next year or so.

By the time he was 23 months, he could speak only a handful of one-syllable words. When his older brother was the same age, he'd strung sentences together so beautifully that our friends commented that it was like having a conversation with a 40-year-old.

Worried, I consulted two pediatricians, who both asked me the same question: "Does Michael understand you when you speak to him?" I thought about the times when my husband would ask no one in particular, "Where's the flashlight?" and Michael would run to another room and emerge with it. Or I'd ask him to take his red plastic cup and put it in the sink, and he'd follow my directions.

"Yes," I answered.

"Then you don't need to worry. He's just following his own schedule. His speech will come along when he's ready," they reassured me.

Professional opinions aside, I'm a mom  -- I was concerned anyway. I thought about consulting a speech therapist, but then I figured that might put too much pressure on Michael. So I decided to wait it out.

The first time I felt any real relief was when I confided in my friend Jack, one of the smartest men I know. "If it makes you feel any better," he told me, "I didn't utter a word until I was four."

As it turned out, the doctors were right. From age 2 1/2 to 4, there was a dramatic improvement in Michael's speech. By the time he started preschool, just before his 4th birthday, he was talking in complete sentences, had a large vocabulary, and chatted enthusiastically with his friends  -- especially when the topic turned to Batman. He might have gotten off to a slightly late start, but I'm thankful every day that he's a bright, healthy child.

What's Normal?

Chances are, you've seen charts, read books, or talked to your own child's doctor about when your little one should reach milestones. One important source of these "norms" is the Denver Developmental Screening Test, for which thousands of children were examined to create ranges of development that have been used by doctors for more than 20 years. According to the test, 90 percent of babies can:

• smile, roll over, and reach for an object by 5 months

• sit without support by 8 months

• pull to a standing position without anyone's help by 10 months

• walk on their own by 14 months.

By about 9 months, 75 percent can imitate speech sounds, and the same percentage say at least three words by 15 months and put words together by about 22 months. The important thing to know about these statistics: While pediatricians still use them and they can help give you an idea of how your baby is developing, they're no longer considered to be exact for every child. "Today we look at milestones as taking place over a whole range of normal  -- so that some children walk at nine months and others not until fourteen months, but both ages can be fine," says June Pimm, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist in Ottawa, Ontario.

Experts also used to believe that children developed motor skills and language skills simultaneously. Although this is the pattern for some kids, it's not the case for all. "Many children work so hard to perfect one ability, such as walking, that they may unintentionally neglect others, like talking, until they're convinced they've mastered the first one," explains Pimm.


In His Own Time

Along with such basic differences in developmental patterns, other factors can influence when your child will reach a milestone:

1. Temperament

We all know kids who are daredevils: the first to climb onto the coffee table to see out the window and  -- later  -- the first to jump off the diving board. These are frequently the ones who walk early. They may talk early too, since they don't worry about how they sound  -- they just plunge in and see what happens.

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 in talking, crawling, or walking," says Pimm.

Encourage your child to try new things by letting him know you're there to help. When you play together, put a few of his favorite items just out of reach so he's tempted to crawl, stand up, point, or talk to you to try to get them.

2. Natural strengths

Think of your own family  -- is there one person who's particularly good at writing, loves to read, or is an excellent public speaker? Is there someone who's the athlete of the group? Maybe someone else is a musician or plays the role of peacemaker.

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.

In his book The Einstein Syndrome, Thomas Sowell, Ph.D., a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution (a public-policy think tank), describes a large group of children currently being studied at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville. "These kids began talking late  -- in some cases up to three years beyond what's considered normal  -- but many are bright and tend to have a natural facility and an avid interest in math, music, and memory," says Sowell. Unlike a lot of other kids, they resist performing on request, which means sometimes their behavior gets misinterpreted and they're labeled as slow. Sowell's interest in bright children who talk late was spurred by his own son, John, who didn't speak until he was almost 4. Today John's a highly successful computer engineer.

Scientists don't know what's behind this apparent late-talking math/music—whiz link or just how many late talkers excel in these areas. One possible theory: Studies have shown that speech is controlled primarily by a region in the brain that's also responsible for analytical and musical abilities. Perhaps the demands of growing such strong analytical and musical skills drain other resources in this spot, leaving fewer available for speech development, which then becomes delayed.

3. Siblings

Kids 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 a drink for him before he has a chance to go for it himself.

So sometimes you'll need to act as a referee, reminding your older child to let his brother try things by himself or not to push him too hard to do something he's not ready for yet. "Our daughter Kaitlyn always talked for Stephen, who's two years younger," says Maryann Clow, a mother of four kids, ages 2 to 7, in Harrison, New York. "By the time he was nineteen months old, he wasn't saying much more than 'Mommy' or 'Daddy,' so I was concerned. But his doctor said, 'You have a bright kid. He's just lazy. Wait until he's two.' Of course! Why would Stephen talk if Kaitlyn was going to do it for him? I explained to her that he'd never learn that way, and by his second birthday he was beginning to speak in sentences. I was so relieved."

4. A skill-building environment and opportunities

Even if your child doesn't have an older sibling to do things for her, how quickly she reaches certain milestones may depend on how often she gets to work at them. Although it's best to put an infant to sleep on her back to lower the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), an awake baby needs to spend time on her belly to build neck strength and learn to pull up her head and crawl. Similarly, kids learn to talk by listening to language and being encouraged to respond to it. Of course, you tell your child "useful" things like "Let's button your coat" or "Do you want some more bananas?" but language experts also recommend plenty of casual chitchat that doesn't serve any particular purpose. Kids who are asked questions about ideas and observations  -- such as "Did you see how bright the moon is tonight?"  -- may be more likely to open up and try to join in the conversation. Singing simple songs together can boost language development too. Or just imitate the sounds your baby makes back to her and see her delight in the "dialogue" she's able to carry on.

Another way to encourage a child to reach milestones: Provide a safe but stimulating environment. Having a childproof area where she can crawl around, pull up on objects, and bang things together may do wonders to nudge her motor skills along. And 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.

5. 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, parents should begin counting from the child's due date, not from his birth date. So a child born three months early should be expected to reach at 6 months the milestones of only a 3-month-old.

"Our daughter Samantha was born fourteen weeks prematurely," says Barbara Howell, a mom of two girls  -- Samantha's now 10 and sister Nicole is 8  -- in Maynard, Massachusetts. "She didn't walk until fourteen months, and although she uttered a few small words here and there after she turned a year old, she didn't say 'Mama' until twenty-one months. From that point on, her development really took off, and within a few months she began identifying letters, reciting the alphabet, and even singing all of 'I've Been Working on the Railroad.'"

Is Something Wrong?

Most of the time, kids who are slow to develop in one area catch up just fine. By the time they're school-age, nobody would ever know there'd been a delay. But sometimes late milestones can signal a problem. Warning signs:

• Your child is delayed in more than one area. She's 15 months old and hasn't uttered a word or taken a step, and she seems to be wrapped up in her own world  -- she doesn't turn to look at you when you enter a room or say her name, for example, or she appears uninterested in other children her age.

• The delay is dramatically different  -- two months or more  -- from the norm. She's 17 months old and not walking, or she's 7 months and hasn't smiled yet.

• Your child doesn't seem to understand or respond when you talk. Somewhere between 8 and 12 months, most babies will point to their favorite stuffed animal if you ask them where it is, or at least look in the right direction. By 12 to 15 months, they'll begin to respond to simple verbal requests: If you ask a typical 1-year-old to bring you her shoe, she will.

• The delay is making your child misbehave or feel sad. Most 2-year-olds can speak well enough to negotiate with Mom or Dad: You'll say, "It's time for bed," and your toddler will say, "Not yet  -- one more story!" Children who don't have these language skills but are emotionally ready to be more independent and bargain with you become frustrated, and the only way they can communicate that is to throw themselves on the floor and have a tantrum.

Of course, anytime you're concerned about your child's development, talk to her doctor, who can refer you to a specialist if necessary or reassure you, as mine did, that everything is fine and she just needs a little more time. Trust your instincts  -- even if your doctor says your child is okay but your gut is telling you something's not right, make an appointment with a specialist. If it turns out there's a problem, most are completely correctable. Delays in walking or other motor skills often indicate muscle weakness, which can be helped with physical therapy. Language problems are addressed with speech therapy or by treating undiagnosed ear infections or hearing problems.

In the long run, it's not going to matter much when your child reaches a milestone as long as she eventually reaches it. Take a lesson from my mom friend Alice Griffin*, of Boston. "When our son, Joseph*, was fifteen months old, the doctor said, 'Wow, he still hasn't found his sea legs yet.' In other words, he was barely walking," Griffin recalls. "I was a little worried, but we waited and he walked fine within a couple more months. Today he's seventeen and one of the fastest runners on his high school track team."


Laura Flynn McCarthy's last feature for Parenting was "9 Symptoms Moms Shouldn't Ignore," in the September issue.