Tracking Your Child’s Milestones: What the Updated Guidelines Mean

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Mommy kissing baby on bed While a baby’s first step and first word are unforgettable milestones, many parents may not realize that other less celebrated milestones are also important indicators of appropriate growth and development. Knowing the age at which your child uses a spoon, for example, or engages with a toy, can help your pediatrician confirm typical development and identify delays.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently updated their milestone guidelines as provided through a program called “Learn the Signs, Act Early.” Through milestone checklists, this program helps families and pediatricians earlier identify the signs of autism and developmental delays. The sooner a delay is identified, the sooner a child receives access to support services.

Initially, the milestones were based on behaviors 50% of children were able to do by a certain age. For example, 50% of 2-month-olds can hold up their heads while lying on their bellies. Under this old guidance, if a child was not showing the behavior by the given age, a pediatrician had reason to believe they may develop the behavior within a few weeks. This meant parents and pediatricians would “wait and see,” potentially missing the early warning signs of developmental delay.

The CDC and AAP have now updated these milestones with the goal of better identifying children who would benefit from further evaluation. The new guidelines are based on milestones 75% of children have reached by a certain age. They also include new milestones for 15- and 30-month-olds, ages of critical growth and development. With clear guidance about what constitutes a missed milestone for all children 5 and under, pediatricians can be confident a child who has not reached one or more given milestones should be further evaluated for autism spectrum disorder or a developmental delay.

Why early detection matters

Early intervention, which may include speech and physical therapy as well as other need-based support, is a service available to babies and young children with autism and other developmental delays at low or no cost. Research shows that early intervention significantly impacts a child’s development and school success.

The earlier a child has access to these services the greater the benefit. However, less than 25% of children with developmental disabilities currently receive early intervention services before 3 years old. These new milestones are a step in the right direction. In addition to clearer guidance, the new guidelines place more emphasis on social/emotional milestones, such as smiling at a parent or pointing at a toy with interest. Missed social/emotional milestones can be the first indicator of autism.

The new milestone checklists should lead to earlier identification of the signs and symptoms of delay. This means families can seek evaluations as early as possible to sooner access support that will help their children.

Partnering with your pediatrician

While the milestone checklists are not a substitute for the developmental screening your child receives at each well visit, they do empower you with the knowledge needed to recognize missed milestones and raise any concerns to your pediatrician.

Family-friendly with specific examples, the milestone checklists also provide fun activities you can do at home to help stimulate your child’s development and promote their next set of skills. Additional resources, including a website, handouts and even an app to track your child’s milestones, help you partner with your pediatrician to better support your child’s overall health and well-being.

Visit the “Learn the Signs, Act Early” website to access milestone checklists and download the app.

For more, listen to this podcast episode on the updated developmental milestones, and how and why the changes were made.

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