Developmental Delay Overview
Children reach developmental milestones at their own pace.
Minor, temporary delays are usually no cause for alarm. An ongoing delay or
multiple delays in reaching milestones is called developmental delay. Developmental milestones include language, thinking, and motor skills.
Developmental delay may be caused by a variety of factors,
including heredity, problems with pregnancy, and premature birth. The cause is not
If you suspect your child has developmental delay, speak
with your pediatrician. Developmental delay sometimes indicates an underlying
condition. Only a doctor can diagnosis developmental delay. Early intervention
may help your child's progress.
Causes of Developmental Delay
Although doctors can't always pinpoint the cause, a variety
of things can contribute to developmental delay. Some conditions, like Down
syndrome, for example, are genetic in origin. Infection or other problems
during pregnancy and childbirth, as well as premature birth, can cause
Chronic ear infections in infancy and toddlerhood can cause
hearing loss, leading to speech and language delay. According to the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), developmental delay is also a symptom of
lead poisoning in young children (EPA).
Developmental delay can also be a symptom of other underlying
medical conditions, including:
- autism spectrum disorders
- cerebral palsy
- fetal alcohol spectrum disorders
- Landau-Kleffner syndrome
- myopathies, including muscular dystrophies
Speech and Language
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other
Communication Disorders (NIDCD), the most active time for learning speech and
language is the first three years of life, as the brain develops and matures (NIDCD, 2010).
The language learning process begins when an infant
communicates hunger by crying. By the time they reach six months old, most can
recognize the sounds of basic language. At 12-15 months, he or she should be
able to say a few simple words, even if they are not clear. Most toddlers can
understand a few words by the time they are 18 months old. When they reach
three, most children can speak in brief sentences.
Speech Delay or
Speech and language delay are not the same. Speaking
requires the muscle coordination of the vocal tract, tongue, lips, and jaw to
make sounds. Speech delay is when your child stutters or has difficulty
producing sounds the correct way. A disorder that makes it hard to put
syllables together to form words is called apraxia
Language disorder is when a child has a difficult time
understanding what other people say, or cannot express his or her own thoughts.
Language includes speaking, gesturing, signing, and writing.
Poor hearing can cause speech and language delay, so diagnosis
usually includes a hearing test. Children with speech and language delay are
often referred to a speech-language pathologist. Early intervention can be a
Fine and Gross Motor Skill Delay
Fine motor skills
include small movements like holding a toy or using a crayon. Gross motor skills require larger
movements, like jumping, climbing stairs, or throwing a ball.
Children progress at different rates, but most children can
lift their head by three months, sit up by six months, and walk well before
their second birthday. By age five, most children can throw a ball overhand and
ride a tricycle.
Falling outside the normal range is not always cause for
concern, but if your child is unable to perform tasks within the expected time
frame, speak to your doctor. Motor skill delay may be caused by an underlying
Autism Spectrum Disorders
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) include a group of
developmental disabilities in which the brain handles information in different
ways. Classic autism usually includes language delay and intellectual
Symptoms are sometimes obvious early on, but may not be
noticed until a child reaches two or three years of age. Signs and symptoms of
autism vary, but usually include delayed speech and language skills. Children
with autism may have difficulty communicating and interacting with others.
There is currently no cure for autism, but early
intervention and education can help your child progress.
If You Suspect Your Child is Developmentally Delayed
Remember that children develop at different rates. However,
if you think your child is developmentally delayed, talk to your doctor. If
your school-age child is diagnosed with developmental delay, you may be
eligible for special services.
Specialized services vary according to need and local
municipality. Check with your physician and your school district to find out
what services are available. Specialized education, especially when started
early, can help your child progress and achieve more in school.