Developmental Delay in Children

Overview

What is child development?

A child’s growth is more than just physical. Children grow, develop and learn throughout their lives, starting at birth. We can find out about a child’s development by how they interact with their environment, including how they play, learn, speak, move and behave.

What is developmental delay?

Skills such as taking a first step, smiling for the first time and waving "bye-bye" are called developmental milestones. Children reach milestones in playing, learning, speaking, behaving and moving (crawling, walking, etc.). A developmental delay happens when your child is slow to reach one or more of these milestones.

Diagnosis and Tests

What is developmental screening?

Doctors and nurses use developmental screening to tell if children are learning basic skills when they should, or if they might have problems. Your child’s doctor may ask you questions or talk and play with your child during an exam. This shows how the child learns, speaks, behaves and moves.

The nurse or doctor may also ask you questions or give you a questionnaire to fill out. Developmental screening is a tool to find out if your child is on track or needs extra evaluations or treatments. There is no lab or blood test to tell if your child may have a general delay in their development. There are tests for specific syndromes and disorders that cause developmental delays and your provider will tell you whether any of those are needed.

Because there is a wide range of growth and behavior for each age, it is natural for children to reach a milestone earlier or later than a general trend. Your child’s doctor will look at the big picture and let you know if anything else is needed.

Why is developmental screening important?

When a developmental delay is not found early, children don’t get the help they need right away. This can make it hard for them to learn and make developmental delays worse. The sooner children get help, the better off they will be in the long term.

In the United States, 17% of children have a developmental or behavioral problem, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), intellectual disability or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD or ADHD).

Management and Treatment

What happens if my child has a developmental delay?

Depending on what the concerns are, your healthcare provider may refer your child to one or more specialists. These may include:

  • A hearing specialist.
  • A speech therapist.
  • A developmental pediatrician.
  • A neurologist.
  • A provider of early intervention services.

Will my child "outgrow" developmental delay?

It's possible that your child will outgrow a developmental problem on their own. But, with help, your child is more likely to reach their full potential.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are early intervention services?

Early intervention services provide support infants and toddlers with certain issues. These may include:

  • Premature birth.
  • A variety of health problems.
  • Delays in seeing, hearing, talking, thinking, playing or moving.

If your child is eligible for early intervention services, that provider will write an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). This plan is based on the particular needs of your child and your family. The service provider will figure out what activities and services could best help your child. The types of services include:

  • Assistive technology (devices your child may need).
  • Audiology or hearing services.
  • Speech or language services.
  • Family counseling and training.
  • Medical services.
  • Nursing services.
  • Nutrition services.
  • Physical therapy.
  • Occupational therapy.
  • Psychological services.

These services are provided to eligible children free of charge and usually are done at your home. The services are voluntary (you do not have to do them) and if you are not sure about any of them you should talk to your child’s healthcare provider.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Development refers to how your child grows and changes over time. It includes physical, thinking and problem-solving (cognitive), language and social-emotional development. While there are developmental milestones that mark the stages of typical growth, every child is unique. If your child has a developmental delay, they’ve not yet gained the skills that experts expect children their age to have.

Learning that your child has a developmental delay can be concerning. But some therapies can help your child with developmental delay function well or keep up with their peers. If you have any concerns about your child’s development, please speak with their healthcare provider. Getting a diagnosis and lining up the appropriate therapy can help your child thrive.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/24/2021.

References

  • National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities. . Accessed 9/8/2021.Developmental Delay (http://nichcy.org/disability/specific/dd)
  • Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. . Accessed 9/8/2021.Learn the Signs. Act Early (http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. . Accessed 9/8/2021.Developmental Monitoring and Screening (https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/childdevelopment/screening.html)
  • Khan I, Leventhal BL. . In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Accessed 9/8/2021.Developmental Delay (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK562231/)

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