Does Your Child Need Early Intervention?

If your child is experiencing developmental delays, don't worry. Here's what to know and what you can do to help.

mother helping baby stand Alexandra Grablewski

Soon after birth, your child will show off her personality and develop skills such as briefly gazing at objects, communicating that she wants to be held, and fussing to be fed. Although children develop at their own pace, most achieve certain milestones -- crawling, walking, saying first words -- at around the same age. When children are not reaching expected milestones and are showing significantly delayed development, parents may worry. Suspecting a "delay" is scary, but there may not always be a problem.

If there is a problem, early intervention (EI) services are available to help a child who may have trouble reaching certain milestones. Early intervention means using "therapy services to enhance a child's ability to interact with others and the environment; these everyday experiences and interactions are essential for optimal child development," says Anne Zachry, Ph.D., assistant professor of occupational therapy at The University of Tennessee Health Science Center and author of Retro Baby. In 1986 the U.S. Congress mandated an Early Intervention Program (EIP) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to support children's development with funding for all 50 states. EIP services are usually free and available for children under 3 years old who are suspected of having developmental (physical, cognitive, language) delays, disabilities, or special needs. A pediatrician will usually recommend an evaluation.

Does My Child Need Early Intervention?

Many families receive EI services after birth when a genetic or chromosomal disability (for example, Down syndrome) is identified, but other early red flags include sensory sensitivities, refusing to be held, fearing movement, or have feeding difficulties. "Milestones for biting, chewing and swallowing a variety of foods are typically accomplished by age three," says Melanie Potock, a speech and language pathologist in Longmont, Colorado, and author of Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids. If you notice that your child is not developing significant skills around the same age as her peers or older siblings, visit the First Signs website (firstsigns.org/healthydev/milestones.htm), which lists the average ages that children typically reach specific milestones. Definitely consult your physician if your child is not:

  • Crawling by 10 months
  • Waving, pointing, or imitating gestures by 12 months
  • Walking by 18 months
  • Manipulating ring stacks, form boards, and nesting cups by 18 months
  • Saying and understanding at least 50 words by 24 months

      Types of Early Interventions

      Early intervention begins with a team evaluation to identify a child's needs. "Research reveals that early intervention services can considerably mitigate the effects of developmental delays. Physical, occupational, and speech therapy services may be necessary in order to promote motor skills, speech, and language development," Dr. Zachry says. Early intervention services may include counseling, social work, therapies (occupational, physical, and speech), psychological services, audiology, and vision services. These services can be as simple as recommending hearing aids for a baby who has a diagnosed hearing loss or eyeglasses for a toddler who does not look at pictures, or they can be as complicated as involving a team of professionals who help a child with cerebral palsy sit in a chair to feed herself. "Professionals will team together to boost coordination, strength, and stability while supporting a child's sensory needs and address goals to help a child thrive at preschool, on the playground, and at mealtimes," Potok says. EI services are provided at an EI center or at home during in-person visits, and the earlier these services are utilized, the better.

      Occupational Therapy
      Occupational therapy helps promote the cognitive, visual, sensory, and motor skills to grasp and manipulate objects. Occupational therapy can help develop concepts such as size and shape discrimination (so that kids can fit smaller objects inside larger ones), hand-eye coordination to use a spoon, and sensory skills to scribble on a tray covered with shaving cream.

      Speech and Language Therapy
      Speech and language therapy is also referred to as speech language pathology (SLP), which helps promote receptive and expressive communication and the oral motor skills to speak and swallow. Speech therapy may include using speech, pictures, gestures, and electronic devises.

      Physical Therapy
      Physical therapy helps promote stability during sitting or standing and mobility to crawl and walk. Physical therapy also helps address kids' needs for any adaptive devices such as walkers and wheelchairs.

      Early Childhood Special Education
      Early childhood educators help provide developmentally appropriate learning environments and activities to promote cognitive and social skills, such as singing finger-play songs and asking for more bubbles to pop.

      Social Work Services
      Social work services assess the social and emotional needs of a child and his family and provide help with counseling or parent training.

        How to Find Early Intervention Services

        So how does a parent begin the process of finding EI services? A good place to start is talking to your pediatrician, who will refer you to a hospital or community-based program. Every state has at least one Parent Training and Information Center that offers information, and you can locate your state on ParentCenterHub.org. The special education department in your school district is also involved in transitioning EI to preschool programs, so consult the department for any relevant programs. You can also visit the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center website to find out what services it provides in each state.

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