Every child will create their own milestone timeline. Period. Add a pandemic, and that timeline may shift more, but here’s why that’s OK according to experts.

The author's daughter
The author's daughter.
| Credit: Courtesy of Caroline Chirichella

There's a set of questions I'm subject to no matter who I speak to when it comes to my 18-month-old Lucia Antonia. "Has she started walking yet? Said her first words? Is she feeding herself? Potty-trained?"

No matter how many times I'm asked these questions, I mostly respond the same: "She will do what she needs to do at her own pace." This answer may not satisfy all those who ask, but it's been working just fine for me. Why? Because I'm a first-time mom to a beautiful, happy, and healthy baby girl. My daughter keeps me on my feet, both mentally and physically. And I'm tired of the idea that once someone has a baby, their milestones are fair game for everyone to discuss.

There are various reasons why one child may achieve milestones at a later time and asking a parent about it can be frustrating. What's worse? Asking these questions during the coronavirus pandemic when milestones are one of the last things on our minds. Every time someone has sent me a note during the pandemic, it has included questions regarding Lucia Antonia's progress: "Is she finally walking? Talking? Forming full sentences?"

I realize that most people who ask these questions mean well. But sometimes questions that come from a good place can feel competitive, especially if the comeback is, "Oh, well, my Johnny started talking at 9 months old" or "My Rebecca was reading by the time she was 2."

These questions can also put parents in an uncomfortable position. They may feel judged or upset that their child hasn't said "Mama" yet or started to walk when the reality is they shouldn't be because milestones can vary for every child.

"Attainment of developmental milestones later than usual does not necessarily mean there will be a long-term problem," says Hugh Bases, M.D., developmental and behavioral pediatrician at NYU Langone Health's Hassenfeld Children's Hospital. "To me, it is more important that the child makes progress and can be monitored over time."

As for my daughter, she's not speaking yet but that can be because she's being raised in a bilingual household (English and Italian) and children raised with two languages may take a bit longer to start speaking, though it's not a general rule.

And she officially started walking right at the beginning of the lockdown, but then had a few weeks where she wasn't walking without holding my hand. Then out of nowhere, she's up and running on her own. I can barely keep up with her now.

I initially wondered if the lockdown had anything to do with her slight regression. And I've read a few pieces from other concerned parents talking about their child's milestones being delayed during this period. But Dr. Bases says it's not cause for much concern. "It's not likely although there may be a theoretical impact. If a child has limited exposure to activities which could promote their development, such as not being to run/climb/jump, then it may delay it a little bit, but it will recover quickly once typical activities are resumed."

I'm not saying milestones shouldn't be monitored or acknowledged because there are times when not meeting them can require intervention. "Although sometimes children meet milestones later than expected without cause for concern, there are also times when delays in reaching certain milestones can be 'red flags' for an underlying medical or developmental condition. It is very important that parents discuss any concerns about their child's development with their pediatrician," says Elizabeth Poole-Di Salvo, M.D., a pediatrician at New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center. And in that case, parents can feel even more pressured or overwhelmed by questions. That's why I say we let parents volunteer that information on their own without being asked about those milestones.

Bottom line: Each child is unique. Each grows and develops at his or her own pace. Each will reach their milestones when they need to. And that should happen without parents feeling obligated to track progress for everyone who happens to ask. Feel free to respond with a very simple, "She'll get there when she's ready. After all, isn't that what's most important?"