When Your Kid Seems Different

Crucial to Identify a Mild Disability as Soon as Possible

In fact, there are millions of babies and toddlers like Eva whose delays or disabilities are initially overlooked or dismissed by their doctor. "There's a big focus on autism now, but many doctors are still not good enough at recognizing the many other common developmental issues," says James McBrien, M.D., medical director of the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Nassau County, New York. Although about 2 percent of young children in the U.S. have a profound developmental disability such as autism or cerebral palsy, another 13 percent -- almost one in six kids -- have milder physical or mental disabilities that can affect their ability to play and learn, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

What's more, these numbers appear to be rising. Over the last eight years, pediatric physical therapists have seen a sharp increase in developmental delays in babies younger than 12 months, according to a national survey by Pathways Awareness, a child-advocacy organization. One likely reason: Babies are not getting enough "tummy time," which is crucial for building strength in their upper body and legs. Pediatricians now stress the importance of putting babies to sleep on their back to reduce the risk of SIDS, but busy parents also may be relying too much on the convenience of car seats, strollers, and bouncers during the day, says Garry Gardner, M.D., professor of clinical pediatrics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, in Chicago. The increase in premature births -- related to the boom in fertility treatment and multiples -- has been another factor. Babies born even one to three weeks early are more than 30 percent more likely to have delays and disabilities than full-term babies, reports a recent study in Pediatrics.

Experts say that it's crucial to identify a mild disability as soon as possible because early therapy can dramatically increase the chance that a child will be able to overcome it. Helping a child strengthen her skills involves a team effort by professionals and parents.

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