My son didn't crawl. The pediatrician said to not worry until James hit his first birthday, so I began a countdown of the days before I could officially freak out. James barely made the deadline, crawling 12 days before he turned 1. He took his first two steps across the playpen at 14 months, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. But then he didn't take another step for four months.
When your child is a late bloomer -- that's a sweet name for a kid who hits milestones later than average -- waiting for him to walk or talk can be nerve-racking. You wonder: Is there something I should have done? Is there something I should be doing? Is he okay? Take heart: milestone timelines are broader than you think!
Luke Nelson, 2, of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, is a great communicator. He makes faces and uses a wide variety of gestures. He points to what he wants. He shakes his head for yes and no. He follows commands (and sometimes refuses with a stamp of his foot), demonstrating that he understands what's said to him. He just doesn't say much back.
And that's not uncommon. Late language development is the most common delay, affecting 1 in 10 children. That's because communicating is so complicated, says Pamela High, MD, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Hasbro Children's Hospital, in Providence, Rhode Island. It requires understanding as well as speaking, and these skills develop differently. Receptive language (understanding) needs to happen first and usually comes before expressive language (speaking) by half a year. So if, for instance, your toddler is able to point to his nose when you ask him to, that's a sign that his skills are developing, even if he's not talking.
If your child is past his second birthday and still has few words, think about whether you're giving him the chance to speak. Luke's mother, Karen, realized that she and the rest of the family were talking for him. "I'd guess, out loud, what he wanted, and when I got it right, he'd nod and do his little happy dance," she says. "Now I make it a point to say, 'Tell me what you want' and wait for him to respond." This approach takes longer. It was faster to guess what Luke wanted to drink, for example, than to wait for him to say "juice" or "milk." But the payoff of waiting is that Luke is gaining vocabulary.
Personality plays a role in talking too. Barry Zuckerman, MD, professor and chair of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine, explains that some babies are naturally quiet. You can help draw them out by singing songs, telling nursery rhymes, mimicking their sounds, and encouraging them to mimic you. Also, "there's nothing like sharing books," Dr. Zuckerman says. "Point and name things in the pictures, and ask your child to point and name."
Lydia Hawley-Brillante, of Baltimore, never crawled and didn't walk until she was almost 2. Her mom, Robin, remembers Lydia as the most placid baby she'd ever seen. "She learned to sit at 6 months and was content with that. She didn't try to pull up to a stand," Robin says.
After Lydia turned 1, Robin began lifting her up to her feet so she could hold on to the coffee table. She'd leave Lydia stranded there for a little while, and when Lydia got bored enough, she tried to move. That's how she started cruising at 18 months. Eventually she took her first steps without holding on. Shocked by her accomplishment, she didn't try again for a week.
The range of when children learn to walk is huge. Statistics show that only 50 to 60 percent are walking by their first birthday. Some walk as early as 8 months, and some, like my son, walk at 18 months. It's all in the range of normal. Dr. Zuckerman says that even most babies who are not walking at 18 months, like Lydia, are fine. "If the child has good muscle tone and reflexes, I don't worry too much," he says.
There are many reasons a child may walk late. Heredity plays a part; if either parent was a late walker, there's a chance the baby will be as well. Sometimes babies who are big walk later because they have more weight to support, and building up strength takes time. And just as in language development, personality plays a role. Some babies seem happy staying put.
It's hard to not dwell on worst-case scenarios. Many people start to worry about autism if their child isn't talking. But the first thing your pediatrician is likely to check, Dr. Zuckerman says, is your child's hearing. And even then, "not talking by 16 months is more common than autism or hearing trouble," he says. And Dr. High reassures, "lack of early language doesn't mean that your child won't be bright." Albert Einstein, for one, didn't speak until well after his second birthday.
When friends pipe in -- "Is he still not walking?" -- try to tune out their accusing tone. Robin used to tell people, "The doctor isn't worried about Lydia, so I'm not either." And try not to compare your child with others. In any group of babies there's likely to be an early walker, an early talker, those who hit milestones at "average" times, and late bloomers. When you think about it, as soon you define "average," babies fall on either side of that.
Do bring your concerns to the pediatrician, though. She can put your child's development in perspective. If you've got a nagging instinct that the doctor is missing something, seek a second opinion. "If you still have doubts, then see another doctor," Dr. Zuckerman says. That will likely make you less anxious, and if your child does have an issue, you can get early intervention (such as occupational therapy), which can make a huge difference.
Finally, look at the big picture -- at all the things your baby may be doing, whether playing peekaboo or blowing kisses. Development happens in spurts and plateaus. Enjoy the plateau your child is on now.
Originally published in the January 2010 issue of American Baby magazine.