Developmental delays and when to be concerned

No two children are alike.

They each develop in their own way, and at their own pace. However, most children gain skills in a familiar pattern and achieve certain skills by a similar age. These skills are referred to as developmental milestones. These can be used to document a child’s progress and pick up on developmental delays.

What are developmental milestones?

Developmental milestones are skills that most children have achieved by a certain age. They are a helpful way for you, your maternal and child health nurse, and other health professionals to keep track of your child’s development.

Developmental milestones are like a checklist of things that most babies or children can do within a certain timeframe. For example, most children will start to walk between 9 and 15 months of age.

Many parenting websites include a list of milestones for different developmental ages. The Australian Government’s Starting Blocks website is a good resource.

The milestones are generally grouped into different areas:

  • Physical milestones – depending on age, this could be things like crawling (4 to 8 months) or walking (9 to 15 months). It also includes fine motor skills like picking up small objects (8 to 12 months);
  • Social and emotional milestones – like their first smile (birth to 4 months) or playing with other children (2 to 3 years);
  • Cognitive milestones – such as searching for hidden toys (1 to 2 years) or learning to count (2 to 3 years); and
  • Communication milestones – saying their first words (8 to 12 months) and understanding what’s said to them (8 to 12 months).

You can keep an eye on developmental milestones yourself. Regular consultations with your maternal and child health nurse are a great idea. They are qualified to observe your child to check for new or missed milestones.

What happens when there’s a developmental delay?

If your child is slower to roll over, crawl, walk, babble or talk, should you worry? How do you know if a slight delay is cause for concern?

Generally, missing one developmental milestone by a month or so is nothing to worry about. But if your child is starting to miss a few milestones – or you think that your child’s physical, social or language skills are not progressing at the rate they should be – then it may need further investigation.

Sometimes, development delays are just that. Your child is just reaching milestones a little slower than other children. But sometimes, delays are caused by other conditions such as autism, intellectual disabilities, or hearing impairments.

Your GP, paediatrician, or maternal and child health nurse can help investigate potential causes. They may also call on other professionals like occupational therapists, speech pathologists, physiotherapists or audiologists. Their primary goal is to try and uncover any underlying conditions that might cause a developmental delay. They will then work to come up with the best plan for supporting your child to learn and develop new skills.

Early intervention is the most effective approach to support children with developmental delays to achieve their goals.

Read how an early diagnosis can help your child.

Trust your instincts

As a parent, try to trust your instinct when you are observing your baby or toddler. After all, you know them better than anyone else. If you have concerns about your child’s development, don’t hesitate to seek help.