Is Your Baby a Late Bloomer?

The range of when children take their first steps and utter their first words is huge. Here's how to tell if your baby might be a late bloomer, and to get some additional assessment from a pediatrician.

My son James didn't crawl. The pediatrician said to not worry until he 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. (Note that some babies never crawl, and this can be normal too). 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—a sweet name for a kid who hits milestones later than average—waiting for them 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 my baby OK?

While you should always seek professional assessment and advice for any concerns you may have about your baby, we do have some good news: Milestone timelines are broader than you might think, and every baby is different. Here are a few developmental milestones to know about, and how to tell if your baby may be a late bloomer.

Language Development

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, M.D., a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island.

Language development 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 their nose when you ask them to, that's a sign that their language skills are developing, even if they are not yet talking.

If you're concerned about your child's language development, it's a good idea to have a discussion with your pediatrician. There may be a simple solution or resources that can help. For instance, Luke's mother, Karen, realized that she and the rest of the family were talking for her son, leaving him with little opportunity to practice his language skills.

"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, M.D., 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."

Parents can do these two things to promote language development: talk to the baby all day long (to give lots of language exposure) and read books to the infant often and consistently.

Gross Motor Skill Development

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% 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, though a physical therapy evaluation might be in order if your child hasn't taken a first step by 15 months, just to be sure. "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 later than others. 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 are content staying put.

What This Means for Parents

Some parents may start to worry if their child isn't meeting milestones like talking or walking "on time." And it's true that paying attention to milestones can be important: Some early signs of autism can be detected even before 12 months and doctors are definitely recommending early intervention whenever possible.

But if your child is behind with expressive language, for example, the first thing your pediatrician is likely to check is your child's hearing, Dr. Zuckerman says. 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.

If it's other people pressuring you about milestones, such as friends piping in—"Is your baby still not walking?"—try to tune it out. Robin used to tell people, "The doctor isn't worried about Lydia, so I'm not either." 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 those 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. Your child's doctor can put your child's development in perspective. If you've got a nagging instinct that the doctor is missing something, or spot any red flags, 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 and 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.

The Bottom Line

All children develop at a different pace. If your child seems behind in meeting milestones. don't stress out, but do act early to get evaluation and support in place to help your child thrive.

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