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How important are milestones for monitoring my child’s development?

As a GP, something I get asked a lot about is children reaching milestones. We live in a world where parents have access to endless amounts of online, often conflicting, information. And whilst social media can be an incredible source of inspiration and for creating communities, it can also be an unhelpful tool for comparison. It is easy for parents to feel overwhelmed and to be confused about what their child should have “achieved” by a certain age.

Some milestones are crucial, some are totally unimportant, and some are important but happen at different times. For example, while it is important for a child to be sitting at six months, whether they crawl or not is irrelevant – some children never crawl at all!

Likewise, the timeframe in which children learn to walk is typically considered “normal” anywhere between 11 and 18 months, but exact timings vary. When it comes to children’s ability to speak, play sports, play a musical instrument or to socialise, the development timeline varies greatly from child to child. More often than not, children reaching milestones at different ages shouldn’t be a cause for concern. However, if you are concerned about any aspect of your child’s health, you should speak to your GP.

If not milestones, then what should I be thinking about?

Rather than worrying about reaching certain milestones at specific ages, in my experience it is more helpful to look at children’s growth, development and happiness in the round.

As well as being a GP, I’m an Ambassador for Development at Gymfinity Kids, the UK’s first and only provider of clubs and nurseries that uses the three pillars of movement, nourishment and development to enhance overall wellbeing in children.

I think the way that Gymfinity Kids uses these three pillars to focus on each child’s progress and wellbeing holistically, whilst also ensuring that they have tonnes of fun during classes, is a very useful model for parents to follow when thinking about their child’s personal and physical growth.

The power of movement

First and foremost, children should be encouraged to be active from a young age and to explore the amazing machine that is the human body. Exercise is so important for every age, stage and fitness level because it strengthens children’s bones, muscles, hearts and lungs, it improves their coordination, balance, posture and flexibility, helps them to stay at a healthy weight, improves sleep and more importantly, it releases “feel-good” chemicals called endorphins.

Not all children will be amazing at playing ball sports, and some might find it harder than others to learn to ride a bike, and that is okay! I completely understand that, for some parents, it might be puzzling why their child hasn’t made the same physical progress as other children or as they did themselves, but this can put a lot of pressure on children and sadly could diminish their enjoyment of being active.

I encourage parents to promote activity primarily for health and happiness. Being active doesn’t need to be in the form of competitive sports – it could be gymnastics, Ninja Knights or dance classes, walking to school or even playing outside. Ask your child what exercise they’d like to try. Perhaps they’ve always wanted to try the parallel bars or diving. If it’s their choice, they’ll want to do it and they will be more likely to develop healthy habits for life.

At Gymfinity Kids, gymnastics and Ninja Knights classes are designed to be a fun and sociable experience for children where they can make new friends and develop a love of movement. Whether it’s learning how to do a forward roll, improving their balance and flexibility or mastering a new Ninja skill, children at Gymfinity Kids are having fun and keeping active in equal measure.

Nourishment and the importance of healthy food habits

A balanced and nutritious diet is vital for children’s physical health and growth, as well as helping with concentration in school, enabling better performance during physical activity and is extremely important for their sleep. Recent research has even shown that diet has an impact on schoolchildren’s mental health and that younger children who skip breakfast or didn’t eat a healthy, conventional breakfast had a lower mental wellbeing score.2

Parents today are bombarded by a huge amount of information about what they should and shouldn’t feed their child, which is often confusing and conflicting. There is even more to think about if children have food intolerances or if parents choose to follow vegetarian or vegan diets.

I strongly encourage parents not to compare their child’s diet with others on social media, at school or in their friendship groups. Instead, parents should trust their instincts (you know your child’s needs better than anyone else) and to go back to basics. The focus should be on providing a balanced diet, including plenty of fruit and veggies, and remembering that occasional treats are a must!

Children are like sponges, and the food habits they pick up as a child will often stick with them for life – that’s why the focus should be on balance, rather than restriction.

Making food fun and encouraging children to get involved in food preparation is another great way to help children develop healthy food habits. Bloss parents will be familiar with Annabel Karmel MBE, the UK’s No.1 children’s cookery author, who is also Gymfinity Kids Ambassador for Nourishment. Annabel is all about balance and has great advice for parents on how to make children’s food exciting, healthy and fun, and her recipes are fantastic for encouraging children to get involved with preparing their food.

Children’s development and the bigger picture

Development in the early years is crucial because it provides the building blocks for health and happiness throughout children’s lives. When thinking about children’s development, it is much more than their physical growth, how well they are doing at school or how quickly they reach certain milestones.

In my experience, children’s happiness, their resilience, ability to socialise and their mental health are all fundamental to a child’s development.

And because every child develops differently, and at a different pace, their “milestones” should be unique to them too. One of the best ways that parents can monitor their child’s development and encourage them to grow is by creating personal goals for each child, rather than making comparisons with peers or siblings.

For example, that could be setting your child a goal of reading for 10 minutes before bed each night, rather than focussing too much on their reading age. Or aiming to be active for 60 minutes each day, whatever that activity involves, instead of focussing on the perceived “success” of that activity.

At Gymfinity Kids, our aim is to lay the foundations for a happier, healthier nation. All gymnastics, Ninja Knights and pre-school classes are designed to suit all abilities, with the dual objectives of progression and fun in equal measure.

Gymfinity Kids has the broadest variety of classes in the industry – in terms of skills, abilities and age groups – which means that coaches can tailor a progression pathway for any child. Structuring classes in this way means children progress at their own speed, are rewarded for their individual successes and along the way they become more resilient, confident and independent.

Happier and healthier children

As a parent myself, I know it’s easy to get bogged down in information overload and it’s not possible to tick all of the right boxes all of the time. This is why Gymfinity Kids’ three pillar approach is so brilliant as it supports children’s overall wellbeing in an easy-to-follow way.

If parents are worried about their child’s development, the best thing to do is, of course, talk to their GP. But I also feel very passionately about encouraging parents to view milestones as loose guidelines, rather than a rule book, and to trust their instincts. By taking some of the pressure off and encouraging children to enjoy adopting healthy habits from an early age, I hope these habits will stay with them for life.


About Dr Ellie Cannon

Dr Ellie Cannon is a practicing GP and medical health expert, specialising in family health. She is the GP for the Mail on Sunday where she writes weekly health pages that also appear on the Mail Online. She has authored books on mental health and parenting and is celebrated as a myth-buster and voice of sense within health and wellbeing. Dr Ellie joined Gymfinity Kids as Ambassador for Development in July 2021.

Other Resources

About Gymfinity Kids:

Blog: Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children’s wellbeing

Blog: Back to school confidence tips with Dr. Ellie Cannon

Blog: World Mental Heath Day

Blog: Dr Ellie’s Tips for Supporting a Child with Anxious Feelings