The internet has done many great things for us. It’s helped us end pub arguments. Made it really easy to find out what other movies that actor has been in. It’s made it much harder to lose important documents (mostly). Helped us build communities. But it hasn’t come without its issues. One of those issues? Comparison. And that comparison can extend to our kids. While the internet isn’t totally to blame, comparison can go a long way to making parents obsess about their child’s milestones and development.
Comparing your kids is natural. We’ve all been there. We’re all watching our kids to see how they stack up against others, asking if they’re doing OK, checking in to make sure they’re doing what they ‘should’ be, when they ‘should’ be. It’s totally natural for parents to concentrate on our child’s development. We may celebrate when they reach specific milestones ‘ahead of schedule’ and we may become concerned if it seems like there’s a delay.
Many of us have found ourselves anxiously reading books or blogs or to check in and wondering if your kid is developing at a ‘normal’ rate. But we’re here to call time on that. Because the majority of the time, worrying about all these milestones, tracking all this progress isn’t necessary. Paying them excessive attention or overemphasising isn’t good for you and it might not be good for your kids. And in truth, developmental milestones aren’t always as significant as you might think. It’s time to stop stressing about your child’s milestones.
#1. Milestones are broad
Developmental milestones tend to cover a range of months and for good reason. While one baby may begin walking at nine months, another might not begin until 16 months. Neither is more advanced than the other. The word ‘milestones’ tends to indicate that there’s a linear formula to growing up, but it’s rarely the case. Consultant clinical psychologist, lecturer and writer Lucy Maddox explains: “Developmental milestones in childhood provide a broad-brush picture of which skills we need to be acquiring in order to function. The temptation in the West to be able to map out expectations for children is huge. There are apps, wallcharts, books, TV programmes, all dedicated to explaining what children usually do and by when. At best these are interesting and reassuring; at worst they are anxiety-provoking and prescriptive.”
She adds: “I’m not sure any cyclical or stage-based model ever captures the complexities of our human lives and relationships, and to expect it to do so is at best optimistic, and at worst a bit daft.”
#2. Taking longer doesn’t always mean there’s a problem
Every child develops at their own pace. Because like adults, every child is individual. It might be that your child grasps fine motor skills like picking things up quicker than they grasp gross motor skills like walking. Ultimately though, when they get to primary school, most kids are running at the same level. And you can, in the words of Annie, bet your bottom dollar by the time they’re applying for universities or jobs, nobody’s going to be asking when they learned to walk or talk. Children who develop outside the ‘average’ developmental timeline aren’t more advanced or somehow more deficient. They just develop at a different rate. And that’s OK.
#3. Every kid is different
While there are tonnes of toys and games and ‘tools’ that aim to help kids with their development, the truth is these products aren’t a magic wand that will speed up the process. Kids can only develop at the rate they can develop. And that’s different for every baby. The developmental milestones that have come to be recognised as standard are because enough kids have developed certain skills at a similar pace and scientists have created broad targets as a result. But they’re just that. Broad targets. You don’t need to worry if your child is ‘slow’ to roll over or sit up. Just remember that everyone is unique and this is just another example of this. Milestones are based on statistics and statistics apply to groups, not to individuals.
#4. Life isn’t a staircase – so why should growing up be?
Typical development isn’t linear. The word ‘milestone’ suggests that things go in a straight line but when else is life straightforward? So why should we expect the way our babies grow and learn to be? Child psychologist Mona Delahooke explained to Motherly: “Developmental theory is moving toward seeing development as happening in cycles rather than in a straight line. I don’t even use the word milestone anymore because I feel that they are so dynamic and shifting. I call them processes.” In fact, science has proven that many children experience small regressions in one area when they hit developmental ‘milestones’ in another. So while your little one might have a burst of language development, they might suddenly be more clumsy than they were. Because it’s a process. And when one area of the brain is working hard, another can be overwhelmed.
#5. Paying too close attention could harm their development
We’ve all been tempted to helicopter parent. But when it comes to developmental milestones, it’s better to let your child work some things out for themselves. When a wobble looks like it might become a tumble, the urge to swoop in and sweep them to safety can be strong. Overwhelming even. Unless they’re in imminent danger though, controlling the urge to intervene is a good thing. The wobbles toddlers experience when they’re learning to walk are their ‘natural homework’ and it’s important to let them ride it out. Family psychologist Dr. Christina Cohen explains: “It’s a young child’s natural homework to move through the early development milestones. The average toddler falls 38 times a day. They don’t view falling as a mistake, they see it as practice. For parents that process appears to go slowly.”
#6. The big picture always gives the better view
It’s a universally known truth that when you step back from the tiny details, things look better. Monet’s paintings looked terrible up close. When we’re busy obsessing over the tiny moments or that dates by which our babies should have rolled over or should be walking or should have stopped bum-shuffling, we might miss some of the bigger picture. If you can view the whole thing as a puzzle in which your child is piecing things together to show you the whole of their being, it gets easier not to focus on the individual bits of the jigsaw.
How can I help my baby?
The best way to help your baby (and maintain your own sanity in the process) is to follow their lead. Get rid of the charts and ignore the blogs that say they should be hitting certain milestones my certain dates. “Let your child lead you to where they’re developing a skill,” says Sarah Beeson. “If you can see they’re not quite there but they’re getting there, you can facilitate that emerging skill. There’s no forcing needed – no flash cards, nothing special. Babies want to develop, they want to achieve these things,” she advises.
Beeson adds that talking is important too: “It can feel a bit silly, talking away to a baby, but try acting like a football commentator, just talking about what you’re doing without expecting a response. This is really good for your child’s speech and language development.”
Of course, if you have concerns about your child’s developmental progress, it’s important to trust your gut. Ultimately, you know your baby better than anyone else, but it’s better to look at their milestones as a whole. Remember not to get fixated on one or two smaller things. If you’re worried about anything, always speak to your doctor, but don’t obsess about the timing of each ‘milestone’. Try thinking of development as more of a process as Mona Delahooke suggests. Remember, kids have a way of finding their own pace. And if you’re intent on celebrating milestones – try these ones instead.