When you become a parent, no one tells you about the deal you just made to take on a lifetime of low-level anxiety. From the joy of your baby’s first smile to the terror of watching your teenager drive off alone for the first time, it’s a roller coaster ride to be sure. In between those huge moments, you’ll often wonder if your kid’s all right. Should they be potty trained already? Shouldn’t they be walking, talking, jumping, or “flying” by now?
This is where milestones come in handy. Right from birth, children learn constantly -- to use their voices, bodies, brains, and emotions. Milestones are markers that tell you when you can expect your child to learn new skills, such as crawling, walking, and talking. They give you and your doctor a standard way to check your child’s development.
Each child is different and reaches milestones at their own pace. But generally, they start to learn the same skills at around the same time. For example, a baby typically crawls at around 9 months. The key though is that milestones are averages. That means half the babies crawl before 9 months and the other half will learn a bit later. Milestones are guides, not report cards.
Also, it works a little differently if your child was born early, meaning more than 3 weeks before the due date. In that case, use the due date -- not your child’s birthday -- when you look at milestones, for the first 2 years.
Why Are Milestones Important?
While you don’t want to obsess over them, milestones are important because sometimes kids have delays in development. Most of the time, the earlier they get help, the more progress they can make. Milestones give you a clear set of skills to keep an eye on so you know where your child stands. They also help you know what to expect next, so you can support your child’s needs.
Your child’s doctor will check on milestones during routine well-child visits. These visits also give you a chance to ask questions or talk about concerns you might have. Your doctor can let you know how often you need to schedule these visits.
What Skills Do Milestones Cover?
Milestones are given by age, and they break down skills children learn into a few key areas:
- Communication and language skills include speaking and using body language to communicate with and understand others.
- Movement and physical skills involve gross motor skills like crawling, walking, and jumping, and fine motor skills that use the hands and fingers, such as eating, getting dressed, and writing.
- Social and emotional skills include forming relationships, playing and sharing with others, and responding to other people’s feelings.
- Thinking and mental skills cover how your child thinks, learns, solves problems, and uses reason.
As they move through milestones for different ages, kids learn more complex skills. They’re always building on the skills of earlier milestones, which is why it’s important to look for delays in learning.
When Should I Worry?
You have a fine line to walk. You want to make sure your child’s learning all the right things, but you don’t want drive yourself nuts staring at a calendar and a list of milestones. Trust your gut, and remember that you know your child best.
If you have concerns, talk to your child’s doctor. If there’s an issue, then you can start to address it. If not, the doctor may help set your mind at ease. At each well visit your doctor will ask about age-appropriate milestones and tell you what to be looking for by the next checkup. At some well visits, you will be asked to complete a developmental questionnaire.
It may help to remember that each child is different. That’s hard to do when your brother or sister or random stranger starts raving about how their kid makes up songs in three different languages while teaching the dog perfect yoga poses. But the point isn’t to make parenting into a competition. Milestones have a lot of wiggle room built in. A healthy baby may crawl at 5 months or at 9 months. Both are normal.
Also, every parent has the same worries that you do. You may find yourself at a playground wondering why all the other kids are climbing and yours isn’t. Meanwhile, some other parent is stressed about how many more words your kids knows compared with theirs. So keep an eye on the milestones, but let them be a guide, not a source of worry. And when you’re in doubt, call your child’s doctor.