Kids and Developmental Milestones: What’s the Connection?

Everyday Einstein talks with Nicholas Day, author of Baby Meets World, about the surprising truth behind developmental milestones in babies. (Hint: They don’t matter as much as you think!)

Lee Falin, PhD,
May 10, 2013
Episode #053

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The Trouble with Milestones

A wave of new motor development research has overturned the paradigm on which developmental milestones were founded—the omnipotent power of neural maturation: the idea that the development of our bodies obediently follows the development of our brains. But the most compelling work in motor development today looks at the subject from the perspective of the infant—someone who has no idea what she’s going to be doing next. (It could be standing; it could be flying.) And once you’re down there on the floor with the infant, you can see that, before walking emerges, there’s something of a free-for-all going on. Infants aren’t obeying. They’re discovering. Motor development, far from being generic and prescribed, is a creative act.

Most developmental milestones are the legacy of an earlier era of motor development research—when psychologists thought that all this was much more predictable than it actually is. But although the milestones are outmoded, they still stand. They don’t even wobble much. Developmental psychologists have pretty much discarded the concept of developmental milestones, but developmental milestones remain the only thing that most people know about developmental psychology.

No parent would have much reason to suspect that milestones are suspect. They are still prominently featured in child development textbooks and pediatricians’ offices. They’re around mostly because they never went away. No one advocates for milestones; they aren’t endorsed by the relevant medical journals or committees. Nonetheless, they continue to be the most common tool pediatricians use to track developmental progress.

See also: What to Do if You Suspect a Developmental Delay?

The vast majority of milestone lists—from standard pediatric references to sidebars in baby manuals—use the median age. A few lists provide a range of ages or some broad parameters. But the median percentile is what gets the major billing: unequivocal, memorable, it catches the eye of the doctor and the parent. It sticks with you.


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