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The Truth About Baby 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 play group. 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, is 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 didn't stop us from worrying: Was he going to be last at everything his whole life? I couldn't help but feel 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. "Milestones can be millstones," says J. Kevin Nugent, Ph.D., director of the Brazelton Institute at Children's Hospital Boston "It's a terrible burden for parents." It's OK to occasionally wake up at 3 a.m. worrying if your baby will crawl (Isn't that a rite of motherhood?).

Looking for Guidance

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." 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.

Thomas' story is typical of many new parents. Nugent's advice to them: Remember that reference books offer general guidelines, but every baby is different. Many first-time parents haven't been around many children, so they rarely see the full range of developmental differences.

But Little Johnny Can ?

Watching for milestones and comparing your child's achievements to those of his peers is perfectly natural. Many times parents often aren't aware that they're doing it, Nugent says. 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 when their 13-month-old takes that first step -- particularly if a friend's baby has been doing it for months.

It's 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.

"The terminology 'milestones' is hugely depressive and gives the impression that there's a database out there that says every few months your child should be doing something," says Nugent. That's simply not the case. Children each have very different trajectories on their paths of development, and the biggest influences on development may be the child's temperament and environment. "Comparisons really don't help you," says Nugent.

Tuning in to Your Baby

The most reassuring piece of science to remember: The average brain is born 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 DevelopmentM.

For example, 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 -- instead of his voice -- to communicate.

And really, there's not a lot parents can do to speed development. Biology plays a large part in when your child will crawl, walk and talk, says Nugent. The main things parents need to do are observe, listen and respect their child as well as create a warm, nurturing environment. "Acknowledge and accept the differences." Milestones aren't 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?"