It’s Not All Mary Poppins

A step at a time

“He’s 15 months old. Shouldn’t he be doing that by now?”

It doesn’t matter what “that” is, really. You all know the question. The longer I am in this business, however, the less likely I am to give that a definitive answer. It’s not that I don’t know how children develop. I certainly do, particularly in the first three years.

When I was a new mother, I read all the books, studied the charts in the doctor’s office, and I could have told you, definitively, whether or not something should have happened at a certain time. I could have listed the windows for each developmental phase. I can’t do that any more. These days, in fact, I’m pretty fuzzy on the markers on that timeline.

I know the timeline, mind you. I know the order things occur. I just don’t recall the “official” dates so well… because in almost every case, they don’t matter. What I certainly know is what a certain child, a child I know, will be doing next. What I do know is what (if anything) I could be doing to encourage that development.

But, should he be walking at 12 months? Well, he certainly could be. That would be within normal parameters. But he might not. That, too, would be normal. Should she be jumping at 18 months? I’d say probably not, but you never know! Should they be able to string two words together at 22 months? Usually, but so long as they understand what you say to them, can follow simple directions and can express their simple needs effectively, I wouldn’t particularly worry if they aren’t.

Developmental milestones are not Rules. Your child doesn’t fail if they don’t hit the milestone at the precise moment the charts say he will. (And they’re not “exceptional” if they get there a bit ahead, either. You may of course be quietly happy if your child gets to one early, but you may not make your friend feel badly because her child hasn’t.) Developmental milestones are generalizations. Helpful generalizations, but that is all.

What is more important than when they get there, is whether they’re progressing through them. First they hold up their heads, then they roll over, followed by sitting, crawling, pulling to stand, cruising on furniture, and finally independent walking. They learn to run before they learn to jump, generally. Some children never crawl, but go straight to walking, but there is a general progression in these things. Only if a child is markedly behind — but I do mean markedly, so far behind that it looks like they’ve stalled there — is there cause for concern.

What most parents don’t realize is how broad the range of ‘normal’ is. A child might learn to walk at nine months (unusual, but I’ve seen it), but then, s/he might not start till 18 months (unusual, but I’ve also seen that). Those children are both now perfectly normal little boys, one 12 years old, one 14. The late walker plays hockey and is on his school’s track team… those extra few months crawling have made no difference at all to his physical development.

“Normal” is broad. “Normal” is huge. “Normal” encompasses a whole heap of variability. Think of the adults you encounter in your life, the different types and capabilities, and consider that, with very few exceptions, you probably consider them all to be ‘normal’. Do you know (or care) when they sat up? Or spoke their first word? Or learned to use the potty? Probably not.

In the end, it’s quality, not speed, that matters. Life’s not a race, it’s a long, meandering journey. One to be savoured.

February 9, 2012 - Posted by | Developmental stuff, parenting


  1. What a timely post. I just had the parent of an 18 month old express concern over his speech (or lack thereof) I honestly had no concerns what so ever. I knew that within the month he would start talking and *never* stop lol! But I got handed a bunch of exercise sheets so I could better work with him…I nodded and smiled and put the sheets away. I continued to talk to him, read to him, sing to him, point things out to him. Not even a week later his language exploded, and now he won’t stop. So my question is, how do you get them to STOP talking?! πŸ˜€
    (I also want to add that if there had been a true issue with his development, I would have done everything I could do to make sure he got the additional help he needed)

    Yes, and I’ll just bet those parents are sure that his sudden speech explosion — which is so very normal, even it if does often (but not always!) happen two or three months earlier — is because of those exercises (that you didn’t do, ahem)…

    And as you say, if there were a true delay, you’d have let them know. As I do. But 18 months? Still within normal parameters!

    Comment by Kate | February 9, 2012 | Reply

    • The whole reason they thought he was behind was because “his brother seemed to be talking so much more a this age!” πŸ˜€ But when his brother was that age, his gross motor was no where near G’s.
      In all fairness though, when I looked at the sheets, it said to read to the child, talk to the child, point objects out to the child, etc…
      My biggest problem has been the opposite though, I’ve had a couple of children who were somewhat delayed and the parents were in complete denial. That does make me sad, as therapy has come so far these days and the kids could get so much help to get caught up.

      Comment by Kate | February 12, 2012 | Reply

  2. I had to look up the dates for my kids’ milestones when filling out medical paperwork recently. They were “normal” so I never thought it worth it to remember that “she walked at 11.5 months” or whatever. It’s a good thing I had a blog though, so I can look them up when I need them πŸ™‚

    Blogging! Isn’t it just so useful???

    Comment by ktjrdn | February 9, 2012 | Reply

  3. As a teacher of children with special needs, I feel that I ought to speak up. In general, I agree that you can have various ranges and as long as they don’t “stall” they’re ok. But, that said, the sequence can matter. A child I work with now was saying random words at age 2, but not using them in conversation. He would, however, name his abc’s, numbers, colors… and the doctor said he was a “late bloomer.” A special educator sees those splinter skills as symptoms. They are out of the range of the typical sequence, and combined with the lack of true verbal communication, they perk my ears up right away. He is very much on the “autistic spectrum” and could have received help over a year ago if the parents had asked for a second opinion. Would you have noticed that something was amiss? I’m sure you would have. But parents (with their small sample size) need to know what might or might not be “normal.” I don’t mind their asking; I just try to alleviate unnecessary concerns.

    I also try to alleviate unnecessary concerns, and with my parents, more have unnecessary, rather than valid concerns! Maybe I just have a particularly paranoid sample, I don’t know… As I commented in my post, I know the order things should be happening in, and yes, I’d be saying something to a parent whose child had oddly splintered skills.

    Comment by My Kids Mom | February 9, 2012 | Reply

  4. The logical part of me remembers this – all kids are different and develop at different rates. However, once in a while the illogical-first-time-mother-terrified-of-autism rears her head. It’s so hard, since you want your baby to be perfect. Luckily, logical me wins out most of the time.

    Well, and every so often, a child genuinely is autistic, aren’t they? These conditions do exist, and you don’t want to miss them. However, most kids are indeed normal, and even when there is a problem, with few exceptions, it usually doesn’t matter in the long run if it was diagnosed at 13 vs 19 months.

    Comment by wingsandboots | February 9, 2012 | Reply

  5. I try to remember (and remind parents) that many of these milestones mean that 75% of all children can do “x” by this age. 25% can’t, and that’s a big number!

    I have had a significant number of kids who were in that 25%. Their parents worry, and I reassure. “If this is still an issue in five months, it will be a problem. Right now, it’s not. Let’s just wait and see.” Even as I say it, I know how difficult that is. ‘Wait and see’ has to be one of the most difficult things for a parent to do!

    Comment by Julia | February 9, 2012 | Reply

  6. Very true….my daughter who is 18 months old started cruising before she was a year old, but it took her 2-3 months to feel confident to walk properly by herself. She however talks a lot and picks up words like a sponge these days…..but one thing I find amusing is when I share my happiness at something new that she did or achieved with another friend who has a kid in her age range, they automatically assume I’m comparing…whereas I’m not, I’m just sharing my happiness and I’m not at all being boastful. People are too judgemental.

    Yes, that is a problem: You’re just being happy, but another mother decides you’re being boastful and comparing. More often than not, the real issue is that the other parent is insecure. She’s projecting boastfulness upon you because she’s (unnecessarily) worried about her own child’s progress. What she needs to do is take a deep breath, believe that her child is fine, and be happy with/for you. I’m sure there are things her child can do that yours can’t. They’re not all the same. In this case, I don’t think it’s so much that people are judgmental as that they’re just insecure and, frankly, paranoid.

    Comment by Shachi Thakkar | February 9, 2012 | Reply

  7. I agree with the teacher of special needs. My daughter has a moderately severe hearing impairment that probably would have gone undetected for even longer if it wasn’t for the nurse who had to check off the “speaks 15 words at 18 months” box on her sheet, and couldn’t.

    Agreed, we shouldn’t get too excited, but I think parents should educate themselves on what the “normal” RANGE is, and be more open to the fact that there could be a problem than I initially was.

    Agreed. Know what the range is, watch your child, see how their skills (all of them) fit, and see if any are markedly out of alignment with the general pattern. Take appropriate action when something is delayed. But don’t throw yourselves into fevers of angst because they’re three weeks behind in a certain skill.

    Comment by lisa | February 10, 2012 | Reply

  8. I really appreciate this post. So well said! I have spent my life around many children, and the informal “competition” over development and normality is unfortunate. My own children have potty trained from17 mos to almost 4, have begun speaking by a year and as late as three. Normal is very broad. While I agree with Lisa, above, that education is a good thing, I also think children can benefit from intuitive trust.

    (And thank you for stopping by my blog! Check the comments there for brush recommendations.)

    This is a beautifully balanced comment — as one could expect from a mother of nine!

    “Intuitive trust.” I like that phrase. Where it falls apart, I’m sure, is that 1) so many parents these days have no experience with babies/toddlers/small children before they have their own, and 2) a great many stop at one or two children. Thus their experience of the range of normal is virtually non-existent. With so little experience, intuition has little to go on.

    In these cases, the charts are useful, but, too often are given far too much weight. The charts become, as I said in my post, rules rather than guidelines, rules from which there can be no variation!!! In fact, many parents start worrying when their child is a couple of weeks past the early end of the range, instead of waiting till they’re a month or two past the late end. So much unnecessary anxiety!

    Comment by Denice (inkstitch) | February 10, 2012 | Reply

  9. The morning I first read this I thought, oh yes, I have one who walked at nine months and one who walked at 18 months. But I kept wanting to post the rest of it. Our 18 month walker would have been much slower if no one had intervened and said hey, this child is not sitting up at 9 months and that might be a problem. A huge thank you to *my mother* rather than our daycare teachers. Otherwise excellent care givers, I do wish they would have mentioned something. Yes, the range of normal is very large but when kids are outside that range, parents might miss it. We have very few data points and a strong desire to believe that all is well.

    Earlier this fall, our daughter (the walk at 18 months child) was also flagged as having a speech delay and now a fine motor delay. Thank you preschool teachers this time! It’s hard not to feel that we, as her parents, should be the ones to notice and act on these things, when in fact, it has often required an “outsider” to get us to see that our daughter needs help. But as parents, our knowledge is limited and our perspective is skewed. Our son did everything early so we expected our daughter to do things later. How much later before intervention is a good idea? We turn out to be poor judges of that issue. Yet there is a lot of hesitation for someone to say, I think something might be wrong enough with your child that you should get help. That is a very hard conversation to have.

    I know the unreasonable worry of parents who say, my child is not doing whatever by however many months. Sometimes a smile, a pat on the hand, and a bit of reassurance are all that is needed. But please continue to have the courage to bring issues up with parents who might not be acting when perhaps we should. I don’t know that love is blind, but it can blur one’s vision.

    I have a bunch of responses to your comment.

    First, I need to assure you that I can and do let parents know when I think a delay is significant. I have referred parents to speech pathologists, behavioural consultants, occupational therapists, and their family doctor over the years, when I think something is amiss.

    Second, it would appear that, by and large, my parents err on the side of panic rather than complacency. I am far more likely to be talking parents off an (unnecessary, exaggerated) ledge than I am to be spurring them into action.

    Third, though I’m sure you are pleased to have the issues dealt with now — I know I would be, if it were my child! — is it a given that your child’s development would be irrevocably compromised had you started with the interventions in another three months? It may be. But maybe not.

    It’s not that I think parents shouldn’t be aware of the milestones. As jwg commented, above, I have experience that parents lack, and so charts can indeed be useful. It’s just that, in my experience, parents more often use those charts to freak themselves the heck out than to any more helpful purposes…

    Comment by Sarah | February 10, 2012 | Reply

  10. Do you ever have the opposite problem? My own DCL is worrying about one of the boys in her care – he’s 2 and only says a handful of words. He wasn’t even saying “mama” until after Owl started saying it. He has a lot of behavior problems – probably the result of frustration because he can’t communicate.

    The parents don’t seem to notice anything out of the ordinary, and the rare time she has tiptoed even close to giving them advice (suggesting that they spend more time with him, since he barely sees them during the week), they really froze her out.

    She doesn’t want to be nosy or offend them, but she thinks that they should maybe have his speech assessed. Right now I think she’s settling for keeping her mouth shut and working on his language as hard as she can…

    The only issue I see where parents are in denial is sleep. There are always a million different reasons why their poor child is reeling around chronically sleep-deprived, but they never see it as the global, health-, emotional well-being, and brain development problem that it is. That one drives me insane.

    But for things like speech development, no, I think I can honestly say I’ve never seen it. When they err, my parents generally err on the side of over-protective and nervous paranoia… (Most of them, I hasten to add, are sane and sensible folk, but in this neighbourhood, that’s the way parents go weird, if they go.) πŸ˜€

    I think your DCL mis-stepped with these parents when she tackled something touchy-feely instead of something tangible. Most parents will become defensive if you suggest they’re not doing right by their child (even if they’re not!). If you can pinpoint something concrete, like “his vocabulary is smaller than I’d expect for his age, and he has trouble following simple directions, which most children can do by now. I think he might benefit from having his hearing tested. I’d suggest you talk it over with your doctor,” that’s pretty non-threatening, and gives the parents something practical to do without them feeling personally criticized.

    Comment by IfByYes | February 13, 2012 | Reply

    • Yes, that’s what I advised her, but now she’s scared :-p

      They aren’t a chatty family – I probably know them the least well of all the other parents – and they just aren’t… warm. The dad, after hearing her detailed description of the organic, from-scratch lunch she had prepared for his son that day, once remarked “You know, there are other foods in this world than rice” because rice usually IS the carbohydrate portion of the lunch menu (after all, she’s Persian).

      Charming man.

      Not warm? They’re not even polite. Or at least, dad isn’t. How rude! And ungrateful! I can see why she’s hesitant to say anything. That would be daunting indeed. Perhaps she’ll feel more able to tackle the issue after a few weeks.

      I hear stories like this, and I just feel grateful for the clients I have. Truly. I suspect, Carol, that the reason she’s been willing to go the second mile for you is that she’s just so thrilled to have truly nice, grateful clients on board!

      Comment by IfByYes | February 14, 2012 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: