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Your Late Bloomer

Many parents whose babies aren't developing as fast as most spend countless hours worrying that their children aren't "normal." But the truth is that the developmental achievements in parenting books are just loose guidelines, and there's actually a large window of time for babies to develop each particular skill.

According to experts, most kids have caught up with one another by age 3, leaving little distinction between the early birds and the late bloomers. Once they're 5, you probably couldn't spot a late bloomer if you tripped over one. In fact, studies of older children who were late bloomers show that almost all go on to do just as well as their peers in school and in organized sports.

Of course, if you have any concerns about your child's development, you should bring it up with the pediatrician. In some instances, being "behind schedule" indicates a need for speech, occupational, or physical therapy. Alert your pediatrician if your child hasn't mastered a skill by the outside window of normal range:

  • 5 months and hasn't rolled over
  • 8 months and can't sit up (with support)
  • 12 months and isn't interested in self-feeding or scribbling with a crayon
  • 18 months and isn't walking
  • 2 years and hasn't uttered his first word

Other things to watch for are asymmetry (for example, a baby only reaches with the right hand or seems to drag the right leg) or the loss of skills that the baby had already attained, notes Andrea McCoy, MD, director of primary care at Temple University Children's Medical Center.

It's worth noting that preemies will often not meet the milestones their chronological age suggests, and multiples are often late talkers because they converse back and forth in their own language (which they understand and no one else does).

But you should find it reassuring to know that severe developmental abnormalities are often fairly obvious and generally aren't limited to slight delays in overall development. There are usually multiple areas of delay, and the baby doesn't make slow and steady progress, notes Dr. McCoy. So why do some babies follow a slightly different timetable than their siblings or peers? A range of factors influence your child's development. Read on for some of the most significant.

One of the strongest influences on a child's development is temperament -- his spontaneous, reflexive way of responding to the world. A child's temperament can't be altered; it's inborn, like the color of his eyes, says Dr. McCoy. A number of traits make up a child's temperament, including:

  • Activity (the amount of physical motion your child displays)
  • Intensity (the level of energy in your child's responses)
  • Adaptability (how easily your child adjusts to a new environment)
  • Persistence (the length of time a child will pursue an activity)

For example, if you have a highly persistent baby, it's likely that she'll achieve skills sooner than other kids her age. It only makes sense that a child who relentlessly practices trying to flip from her back to her stomach will learn to roll over sooner than a child who is easily discouraged or gets sidetracked. Dr. McCoy also points out that so much practice helps a child develop the muscles and coordination she needs to achieve a given skill. A child who is less driven will take longer to strengthen the same muscles.

We've all heard about babies whose feet never touch the ground because so many adoring aunts, uncles, and grandparents want to hold them. Well, don't be surprised if that coddled little bundle takes longer than his not-so-pampered playmates to roll over, sit up, or crawl.

Same goes for a child born into a family where older siblings do everything -- such as fetching a toy before he reaches for it or asking Mom to refill a bottle before he cries for it. As a result, it can take much longer for this baby to verbalize what she wants in comparison to other children who don't have doting relatives anticipating their every need.

Also, the campaign to put children to sleep on their back -- which has dramatically reduced the rate of SIDS -- has had an unintended side effect: Many babies spend less time on their stomach, either because they're not used to it and therefore don't like it or because their parents don't put them in that position during the day. Babies who are left to play on their tummy develop upper-body strength and balance skills -- both of which are needed for rolling over, sitting up, and walking -- sooner than babies who are always being held or put in a bouncer or swing, says Barry Lester, PhD, director of the Infant Development Center of Women and Infants Hospital of Rhode Island.

Another huge influence on your baby's development is his physical makeup. Some infants have what is called a low muscle tone, which may make it harder for them to accomplish gross motor skills. Muscle tone is the level of tension in the muscles when the body is at rest. Children with low muscle tone might be a little late in learning to roll over, sit up, crawl, and walk just because it's harder for them to initiate movement or maintain muscle tone during movement.

How can a parent tell whether a child's muscle tone is low? It's not easy. His arms and legs might be especially easy to move when relaxed, or he may seem to slip through your arms when you pick him up. A child with low tone is a bit floppy and perhaps not as quick to move about as a child with greater muscle tone.

The good news is that most kids outgrow low muscle tone after a couple years and end up on a par with everyone else. Some kids with low muscle tone benefit from physical or occupational therapy for a short period of time. Parents may be taught different exercises to do with their child at home to encourage muscle development. If the exercises are done on a regular schedule, most parents will see positive results fairly quickly.

Don't forget that a baby's development isn't always even. If a child has an advancement in one area, he may regress in another area, points out Dr. McCoy. For example, many children regress socially and emotionally when they begin to walk. While the child may like the new freedom that walking supplies, he also realizes that being mobile may leave him far from the comforts of Mom. As a result, he may start displaying what is commonly called separation anxiety. Another example: When a child is focusing on mastering his fine motor skills (stringing beads, grasping a crayon), he may slow down on honing various gross motor skills (walking, catching a ball), or if he is in love with motion, he may not be interested in learning how to talk.

All of these things together -- personality, environment, muscle tone, and personal preferences -- will dictate how quickly or slowly your child reaches specific developmental milestones. In the long run, even if your child is the last one on the block to roll over, he will probably be just fine. After all, wasn't it Einstein who didn't start talking until age 3?

Copyright © 2002 AmericanBaby.com.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.