What Is a Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrician?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on August 22, 2022
4 min read

Childhood is a time of growth, learning, and development. Your child is increasing in height and weight, learning new physical and social skills, and laying the foundations of adulthood. If you have concerns about your child's behavior or development, your pediatrician may refer you to a specialist. Behavior and development pediatrics is a specialty that deals with children who are not following the expected developmental path or have concerning behavior. A developmental and behavioral pediatrician assesses children's development, learning skills, and behavior and suggests remedies. They try to find underlying causes for deviations in development and behavior and coordinate treatment to move children toward the expected development pathway.

Pediatricians specializing in child and adolescent behavior and development are known as developmental-behavioral pediatricians. They have the training and expertise to assess your child's development and social skills and detect any divergence from the norm. They consider the medical and psychosocial aspects of children's and adolescents' learning, developmental, and behavioral problems and advise appropriate treatment.

Developmental-behavioral pediatricians are medical doctors. They have completed four years of medical school and internship and three years of residency, then passed board examinations to qualify as pediatricians. They have then undergone further specialized training in developmental and behavioral pediatrics. The American Board of Pediatrics certifies them after a comprehensive examination process.

Behavior and development pediatrics is a specialty of pediatrics that studies children's behavior, development, and social communication skills. Doctors specialized in this field see children and adolescents with concerns about learning, social skills, or behavior. Your primary care pediatrician may refer you to one if you feel your child is not developing or behaving as expected. Your pediatrician may also refer you to your state's early intervention program. A developmental-behavioral pediatrician may be part of the team there.

A developmental-behavioral pediatrician provides expert care for children and adolescents with developmental delays and learning difficulties. They also detect and manage the treatment of autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and social communication issues. These disorders may need help from multiple specialists. Your developmental-behavioral pediatrician will coordinate a comprehensive package of care to best meet your child's needs.

Every child is different, of course. Some children do not crawl at the expected age but learn to walk early. Others walk late but begin speaking early.

Most children who worry their parents by not achieving developmental milestones turn out to be fine. But you shouldn't ignore delayed development. You should talk to your pediatrician if your child seems behind in achieving age-appropriate skills. 

Behavior also develops over time. Behavior like temper tantrums and aggression may upset you but are quite normal at age three. The same behavior is considered a significant problem at age five. A developmental-behavioral pediatrician will assess your child and reassure you or advise therapy as appropriate.

A developmental-behavioral pediatrician has expertise in the normal variations of child development. They can assess your child's development with various tests and tools and judge whether any delay or deviation is cause for concern. They can also suggest early intervention programs.

These specialists are invaluable in identifying and addressing many disorders. Some of them are:

  • Learning disorders such as dyslexia, problems with mathematics or writing, and other issues that create difficulties at school
  • Delay in learning, language, speech, thinking, and physical skills 
  • Attention and behavioral disorders such as ADHD, depression, anxiety disorders, and conduct issues
  • Habit disorders like tics and Tourette syndrome
  • Development and behavior issues associated with genetic disorders and chronic disorders like asthma, cancer, diabetes, and epilepsy
  • Disorders like autism spectrum disorder (ASD), cerebral palsy, spina bifida, intellectual disability, and hearing and visual impairments
  • Regulatory disorders such as bedwetting, sleep disorders, toilet-training difficulties, discipline issues, and encopresis (uncontrolled passing of stools) 

They assess children and adolescents for deviations in development, learning, and behavior and suggest treatment strategies. 

Treating behavioral and developmental disorders is complex and requires the services of a variety of experts. Your developmental-behavioral pediatrician will decide what help your child needs and refer you to the appropriate experts. They will also coordinate care. Some specialists your developmental-behavioral pediatrician may work with:

  • Child psychologists
  • Child neurologists
  • Child psychiatrists
  • Physiotherapists
  • Occupational therapists
  • Speech and language pathologists
  • Clinical social workers

Your developmental-behavioral pediatrician will integrate the information from all these specialists and organize the care of your child. 

Developmental-behavioral pediatricians also pursue diagnoses for children with delayed development or intellectual disability. The diagnostic process includes clinical examination; brain scanning by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI); genetic testing; metabolic disorder screening; and testing for specific conditions like hypothyroidism, lead exposure, and infections before birth. Diagnosis improves access to services, prevents complications, and may avoid stigma and trauma. 

Your developmental-behavioral pediatrician may advise you about future risks in subsequent pregnancies and genetic diagnosis during early pregnancy. 

Developmental-behavioral pediatricians can arrange social services needed by you and your child. They can communicate with your child's school about accommodations needed.

Many of the conditions they treat are rooted in genetics, past illnesses or experiences, or of uncertain origin. Their treatment is only rarely based on medicines. Instead, they work by training, education, and behavior modification. You will need patience and determination to see results.

If your child's condition is chronic, your developmental-behavioral pediatrician will help guide your child to their best possible life. 

A child with delayed development or learning disorders needs more help and time to learn skills. Your patience and the expertise of your doctor can help your child achieve their potential. Remember to expect progress in small steps.

If your child has difficulties with learning or you're concerned about their behavior, talk to your pediatrician. They may refer you to a developmental-behavioral pediatrician for expert assessment and treatment. Untreated children with development and learning disorders often have anxiety, poor self-esteem, and other psychiatric symptoms.

Consulting a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and following their guidance can help your child enormously.