On the sun-drenched playgrounds of Tucson, AZ, Kristi Thomas, who has a 3-year-old son and a baby daughter, reports that there's a certain other mom -- Thomas is too polite to name names -- who opens every conversation with the greeting, "Guess what David did today?" At an infant exercise class outside Chicago, first-time mother Amy Lowe recalls other parents' gasps of disbelief that her daughter, at 19 months, did not yet show dexterity on the balance beam. On the Web, at a bulletin board devoted to "advanced babies" -- we're too appalled to name the site -- one correspondent recently boasted about her 9-month-old son's mastery of "quite a few meaningful, multisyllabic words."
New parents have never been known to downplay their baby's unique genius. But today's proud moms and dads are taking it a few levels higher. "Some go crazy competing," as Lowe says. This preoccupation with developmental milestones cuts two ways: For every braggart celebrating her little Einstein's first wave bye-bye, there's another worrying that her Fiona or Oscar ought to be keeping up with the Davids.
Especially in a baby's first months, when there's not a lot of evidence to go by, parents like Kelly Marcus, a Philadelphian whose daughter is just over a year old, read and reread the relevant passages in their baby manuals -- Marcus has six -- for clues that their child is on track. "In the beginning, I read every chapter two or three times, over and over. I was waiting for things to happen," Marcus says. "I'm not as consumed now. Actually, that's a lie; I just read the chapter on walking."
Two recent trends are to blame, says Jerry Brodlie, Ph.D., a child psychologist and chair of the department of psychology at Connecticut's Greenwich Hospital. On one hand, he says, our accomplishment-oriented society is no longer satisfied to wait for grade-school report cards to quantify a child's achievements. "It's a downward trend, age-wise," he says. "If you have a 1-year-old, what measure of accomplishment can you use? If you say, 'Well, my child started to talk at 8 months,' you can one-up your neighbor."
Plus, he says, a torrent of news and debate about pervasive developmental disorders such as autism has parents seeking reassurance that their babies are growing and thriving on schedule. Says Dr. Brodlie: "I think people are looking for hard empirical data to prove that their kids are okay."
Smart parents are also aware that early interventions like speech evaluation and occupational or physical therapy can help a child with a developmental delay get on track with his peers, so they keep their eyes hyper-peeled for signs of trouble. "These programs are readily available, and people -- rightly so -- want to take advantage of them," says Richard Saphir, M.D., a pediatrician and clinical professor of pediatrics at New York City's Mount Sinai School of Medicine. But in medical terminology, intervening "early" usually means taking action when a child is a couple of years old, he says, not a couple of weeks.