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Developmental Delay

What is developmental delay?
Developmental Delay is when your child does not reach their developmental milestones at the expected times. It is an ongoing major or minor delay in the process of development. If your child is temporarily lagging behind, that is not called developmental delay. Delay can occur in one or many areas—for example, gross or fine motor, language, social, or thinking skills.

Developmental Delay is most often a diagnosis made by a doctor based on strict guidelines. Usually, though, the parent is the first to notice that their child is not progressing at the same rate as other children the same age. If you think your child may be “slow,” or “seems behind,” talk with your child's doctor about it. In some cases, your pediatrician might pick up a delay during an office visit. It will probably take several visits and possibly a referral to a developmental specialist to be sure that the delay is not just a temporary lag. Your child's doctor may use a set of screening tools during regular well-child visits. boy riding on dad's shoulders

The first three years of a child's life are an amazing time of development...

...and what happens during those years stays with a child for a lifetime. That's why it's so important to watch for signs of delays in development, and to get help if you suspect problems. The sooner a delayed child gets early intervention, the better their progress will be. So, if you have concerns, act early.

What causes developmental delay?
Developmental delay can have many different causes, such as genetic causes (like Down syndrome), or complications of pregnancy and birth (like prematurity or infections). Often, however, the specific cause is unknown. Some causes can be easily reversed if caught early enough, such as hearing loss from chronic ear infections, or lead poisoning.

What should I do if I suspect my child has developmental delay?
If you think your child may be delayed, you should take them to their primary care provider, or to a developmental and behavioral pediatrician or pediatric neurologist. An alternative to seeing a specialist is to work through your local school system (see below). If your child seems to be losing ground—in other words, starts to not be able to do things they could do in the past—you should have them seen right away. If your child is developmentally delayed, the sooner you get a diagnosis, the sooner you can begin connecting to developmental services and a medical plan if needed—and the better your child's progress will be.

If you have concerns, act early.

What can the school system do for my child?
Ask your school system in writing for an evaluation of your child, even if your child is a baby, toddler or preschooler. They are required to provide it, at no cost to you. The purpose of an evaluation is to find out why your child is not meeting their developmental milestones or not doing well in school. A team of professionals will work with you to evaluate your child. If they do not find a problem, you can ask the school system to pay for an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). There are strict rules about this, so you may not get it. You can also have your child tested again privately, and pay for it yourself. But check with your school district first to make sure they will accept the private test results. By law, the school system must consider the results of the second evaluation when deciding if your child can get special services.

What is early intervention?
Every state has an early intervention program that you will want to get your child into right away. If you live in Michigan, your doctor may refer you to the Early On Program in your local school district. (Outside Michigan, you can find your state's early intervention services through the NICHCY website.) Early On (and all states' early intervention programs) offer many different services and will help set up an individualized program for your family. It is called an Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP).

It is most important to start a care plan as soon as you can, and make sure it includes lots of one-on-one interaction with your child.

What is special education?
Special education means “educational programming designed specifically for the individual.” It can really help your child do better in school. If your school-aged child qualifies for special education, they will have an Individualized Education Plan ( IEP) designed just for them.

What happens as my child grows up and eventually becomes an adult?
Transition planning is planning to get your child ready to lead a rewarding life as an adult. As your child gets closer to adulthood, they will need an IEP transition plan. Transition planning begins at age 14. It is part of the IEP every year after that. At age 16, planning will begin for how your child will transition from school into the community. The goal is for your child to become as independent as possible. Your child should take part in the planning, because their input will help make the plan more successful. For a thorough discussion (37 pages when printed) of the transition plan, see Transition Services in the IEP, from NICHCY.

What do I need to know about the laws that have to do with early intervention and special education? What are our rights?

What are some recommended books?

What are some other resources for information and support?
Related topics on YourChild:

Other resources:

Spanish Language Resources:


Written and compiled by Kyla Boyse, RN.  Reviewed by Layla Mohammed, MD.
Updated February 2010


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U-M Health System Related Sites:
U-M C.S. Mott Children's Hospital
Department of Psychiatry
U-M Pediatrics

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