The first smiles, the first words, the first steps; for most parents, the “as expected” appearance of major developmental milestones during infancy and toddlerhood is a relief, happiness and pride. Unfortunately, for some mothers and fathers, the “off-schedule” emergence of these achievements produces considerable anxiety, alarm and confusion. However, while a child “missing the mark” may, indeed, be cause for concern on occasion, in many cases the real problem is simply misunderstanding of what developmental milestones represent.
All children – even genetically identical twins, have their own unique rate and pattern of development during the early years. Like snowflakes, sunsets and other miracles of nature, no two babies are exactly alike.
Of course, when researchers study infants and toddlers as a group, various norms may be established, but determining average ages for the initial appearance of certain abilities does not mean that the figures represent a distinct and precise timetable. The standards resulting from such studies are merely statistical concepts; they are not intended to describe something that routinely occurs in the real world. In fact, if researchers come up with a “typical” rate and pattern of progress based upon 100 children, there is a low likelihood that the development of any one of those children will match every detail of the collective description.
For this reason, pediatricians, psychologists and educators usually do not like to pinpoint the expected appearance of new abilities. Instead, they prefer to offer reasonable “ranges.” Nonetheless, when translating research results into lists and charts, considerations of economy and convenience sometimes cause this notion to get lost. As a result, parents often receive the erroneous impression that the designations of what is “normal” are far more rigid than they actually are.
What is important to remember is that the established milestones can provide a general picture of development during infancy and toddlerhood, but they cannot provide a precise blueprint for the progress of any particular child. Although lists and charts tend to describe it in a concise and organized manner, the fact is that early development is never a neat and orderly affair. While parents may want to compare the progress of their progeny to that of other children and standard norms, they should never forget to appreciate and enjoy the special individuality demonstrated by their own child.