The milestones we don’t talk about (but should)

I receive a troubling amount of messages asking my when my daughter reached this or that milestone. Parent’s are obsessed with their children developing ‘on time’ (even though milestones unfold on a huge spectrum). When children develop a bit faster than their peers in a certain area, parents wear this like a badge of honour, eager to share this information with anyone who will listen. Parent’s of children who take a bit more time are often incredibly insecure that there might be something wrong with their child, when the reality is, babies have been reaching their developmental milestones without intervention (or attention) for thousands of years. So why are we suddenly spending so much time worrying about something perfectly designed by nature to unfold all on it’s own? We often do more harm than good by intervening in our infant and children’s development, when all they truly need are 1. responsive caregivers and 2. lots and lots and lots of time to engage in free play on the floor (and not in a swing/jolly jumper/excersaucer/stroller/carseat etc).

While I understand that early intervention has helped thousands of children with developmental delays, millions and millions of parents worry that their child isn’t developing quickly enough and there might be a problem. The biggest problem I see is that the “early intervention” message has gotten so loud that parents no longer trust the natural process of development and try to take matters into their own hands.

Children develop on a spectrum, and developing early on is not an indication of strength or aptitude in that area. Developing somewhat later than peers doesn’t always indicate a problem either. All children are learning all the time, but in which sequence that learning takes place varies from child to child. So while one child might be making process in various gross motor schemas, another might be working on fine motor skills that are harder to observe (including, but not limited to, movement of the lips, jaw and tongue needed for speech development!).

More often than not, giving our little ones plenty of time to explore on their own (free play, free movement) in a calm, lightly-stimulating environment, is all nature needs to take care of the rest. I find it unfortunate that, right from birth, children and babies are placed in a comparison model, and parents are constantly reminded of how their children “measure up” in relation to other babies (ie: your daughter is in the 10th percentile for xyz). The comparison game is strong in the early years, and this often gets in the way of trusting the process to progress in it’s own time.

Rather than look at milestones that are largely out of our control, we should be focussing on the relationship milestones we can reach with our children. As I’ve talked about many times on this blog, I believe our child’s sense of connection to us is the cornerstone for parenting. Connecting during each and every caregiving interaction, like diaper changing, meal times, baths, and bedtime (doing with rather than doing to). In the toddler years, connection during ‘discipline’ and big displays of emotion become especially important. Being tuned in to our children and meeting their needs for closeness and connection is a milestone that we actually have some control over! This doesn’t mean spending all day every day with them (hello, self care!), but when we are with our kids, really being present.

Here are the milestones I think we should be looking for:

Is my child happy around me all the time, or do they feel comfortable expressing the full range of human emotions, including sadness, frustration, fear, etc?

When my child feels comfortable (for many kids this might only be at home, as environments outside the home may be overwhelming or over stimulating for young children and they might prefer to stay near/on you) does he or she feel comfortable venturing away from me to explore?

Does my child feel comfortable taking risks, even if success isn’t guaranteed? For a baby, this might mean crawling out of view of mom. For a toddler, this might look like pouring water from a jug without worrying about it spilling, or trying to build a block tower without being afraid of the whole thing falling. Taking risks, and being ok with ‘failure’, is an important part of the learning process.

When my child is upset, do they come to me to be comforted? Am I able to comfort them relatively quickly (not necessarily by giving them what they want/doing what they want, but simply by being a soothing, understanding presence?)

When I greet my child after a period of absence, what is their reaction? Are they happy to see me? Angry? Do they cry? Do they run away from me?

Does my child take an interest in me? Do they want to eat the same food I am eating, copy my behaviour, want to be in the same room as me?

Does my child have a growing sense of self? Are they eager to do more and more things on their own?

For those of you that are familiar with Bowlby’s attachment theory (very different from William Sears’ attachment parenting), you will recognize these markers as a child who has a secure attachment. Unlike developmental milestones like rolling over, crawling, sitting, standing and walking, where the only aspect of control we have is to ensure our children spend the majority of their day on the floor free to move around, the milestones listed above are centered around our child’s connection to us. In essence, the question is, how is your relationship? These are the milestones I believe we should be focussed on, because these are the milestones that we any inkling of control over!