Developmental milestones – things like rolling, sitting, crawling and walking – are often thought of as a bit of a “whose baby is best?” competition. Recently, there has been a movement, particularly on social media, to come away from this way of thinking. Indeed, I have heard many analogies such as ‘popcorn popping at different times in the same pot’ and ‘babies will get there in their own time’.
So why does the medical profession still stand by developmental milestones? The truth is they are important. But not in the way parents have often come to view them.
The pressures placed on new parents by society for a baby to be walking by their first birthday or form simple sentences by two is immense. Children do, much like the popcorn, develop at their own pace. Some children will develop in one area faster than others and those other children may develop quicker in a different area. One child may walk at eleven months but not speak in sentences until three, however, that doesn’t mean they will become an Olympic runner or rule them out of being an award winning author.
Developmental Milestones as Building Blocks
The truth is, the majority of children will get there in their own time, however, this is not the case for all children. The world is a very different place to that which we are genetically evolved to develop in. Babies’ brains and bodies are not designed to spend time looking at a screen, or tucked up for hours in a car seat. However, these are now common place daily events in Westernised society.
Now, that is not to say that these things are wrong, or that parents should feel another layer of parental guilt. But it does mean that we should be aware of what developmental milestones mean, why they are important and when our child may need additional support to achieve them.
The timing of achieving certain milestones is a helpful guide, but only that, a guide. What is more important for medical professionals is the quality with which a child performs each skill and also the order in which they achieved them or even if they missed any out.
For example, rolling may not seem that important. There are not that many adults out in the world who regularly roll around on the floor. Nothing to worry about if your child skips it then, you may think?
However, rolling helps the baby learn to integrate both sides of their body together, how to coordinate one side of your body moving in one way, whilst a different part of your body works simultaneously but doing a different movement. This helps to achieve a fluid coordinated overall movement.
Without this skill you may struggle to use your hands in different ways, for example stabbing your food with a fork with one hand, whilst sawing with a knife in your other, or tying shoelaces, or writing. Rolling also teaches rotation. When babies are born they only really understand how to use their muscles in a forward and back movement, and rotation is a far more complex movement pattern for muscles to manage.
Have you ever noticed that when you first start weaning a baby they push their tongue forwards and backwards, often pushing all the food back out each time? This is because the tongue is a muscle and they haven’t yet learnt how to move that muscle in rotation. Imagine trying to eat if the only movement your tongue could do was forward and back!
The reason that the order is important, is that milestones typically develop in a particular way. This is how the body and brain naturally matures and develops. Milestones act like building bricks – the skills learnt early on are important for developing future ones. Take muscle strength and stability for example. Tummy time builds strength in the neck and shoulder and back muscles. This is then needed to be able to crawl. Crawling builds strength pretty much everywhere, which is beneficial for walking, running, jumping, even things like sitting still on a chair or holding a pen or pencil, and so much more.
The implications of missing developmental milestones
Quite often we hear things like, ‘My child didn’t roll/crawl’ and they are fine. But then in the same breath tell us how their child struggles to sit still in class, or has poor handwriting or struggles to read.
The truth is those early developmental milestones like rolling and crawling are not important so that that child can roll or crawl as an adult… but they are vitally important for building all the skills and building blocks that are needed for far more complex skills in later life.
We are seeing a significant increase in children who are struggling with activities at school. Things like telling the time, sitting well at carpet time to focus on and listen to a book. Children that are bumping into doorways or children who are struggling with using a toilet and dressing themselves, struggling to tie a tie, or work out the bus timetable. It isn’t immediately obvious how skills developed as a baby are linked to this but when you start to delve into the fascinating world of baby and child development you start to see the connections fall into place.
So the next time you hear us or other health professionals mention developmental milestones, remember it is not a competition but it is an important insight into your child’s health and development.
How you can help your child reach their developmental milestones
If your child is not achieving a milestone or you are concerned about your child’s development it is good to get a professional to give a health check.
For older children (3-7) look out for our new children’s picture book series that encourages your child to practice movements that are purposefully designed to work on their core developmental skills.
For younger children and babies, we have developed a sensory play book to help your child develop their senses incorporating massage and other sensory experiences.