How Do You Know if Your Child Has a Developmental Delay?

Parents Should Watch How Child Acts, Speaks, and Plays

Young father consoling crying baby
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As a first time parent, you probably do not know at what age a baby sits on their own, crawls, or even walks. It may be hard to know if you are unfairly comparing your child to another who hit milestones early or if your concern is valid, and your child is showing signs of a developmental delay.

The National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities urges parents to "Learn the Signs. Act Early." This ongoing campaign is dedicated to showing parents, relatives and child care providers how to look at ways a child acts, speaks and plays.

From birth to 5 years, a child should not only obtain milestones in weight and in height but in any of the above areas as well. A delay could be a sign of a developmental problem. If that is the case, then the earlier it is recognized the more parents and providers can do to help a child.​

There are many different types of developmental delays in babies and young kids. The areas in which children develop delays include:

Cognitive or Thinking Skills

This is the ability to think, to learn and to solve problems. In babies, cognitive skills are how one explores the world using their eyes, ears, and hands. In toddlers, cognitive skills are more noticeable as it includes things like learning numbers, colors and new words.

Social and Emotional Skills

These skills are about relating to others and include being able to express and control emotions. In babies, social and emotional skills are seen as smiling at others and making sounds to communicate.

In toddlers, it means being able to ask for help, show and express feelings when you are upset and happy and being able to get along with peers.

Speech and Language Skills

These skills are about being able to use and understand language. For babies, this includes cooing and babbling. In toddlers, these skills include using words correctly, speaking clearly and being able to understand what others say.

Fine and Gross Motor Skills

Physical skills include using both small muscles (fine motor), particularly in the hands, and large muscles (gross motor) in the body. Babies use fine motor skills to grasp objects and use gross motor skills to sit up, roll over and learn to walk. Toddlers user fine motor skills to hold utensils, build things and draw. Toddlers use gross motor skills to jump, run and climb stairs.

Activities of Daily Living

These skills include doing everyday tasks and activities such as eating, dressing and bathing themselves. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in the United States, about 13% of children 3 to 17 years of age have a developmental or behavioral disability such as autism, intellectual disability, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. In addition, many children have delays in language or other areas that can affect school readiness. However, the CDC indicates that less than half of children with problems are identified before starting school. During this time, the child could have received help for these problems and may even have entered kindergarten more ready to learn.

If you have concerns your child has a developmental delay, an appointment with the child's pediatrician is a good first step.

The doctor may conduct a developmental screening to see if a child is learning basic skills on an age-appropriate basis. The doctor may recommend your child see a specialist. Parents can also contact a local early intervention agency (for children under 3) or public school (for children 3 and older) for help. To find out who to speak to in your area, contact the Center for Parent Information and Resources.

Child care providers can also help with early detection and help by noting to parents any signs they see while a child is in their care. Often, providers can serve as a voice of experience since they typically have been first-hand involved with numerous children across developmental, physical and mental milestones through the year.

Training of what to look for and how best to approach and offer advice to parents is also recommended.

All children develop differently and a milestone may be reached earlier or later by some kids and still be considered within normal ranges, early detection of developmental disabilities is a key to truly helping children reach their fullest potential.


Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Learn the signs: Act early. Retrieved from 

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Developmental Monitoring and Screening. Retrieved from