As a child development psychologist, I had some ideas about how I wanted to parent long before I became one myself. But, the knowledge I relied on the most as a new parent surprised me — it wasn’t all of the charts of expected developmental milestones or the research on successful development instead, it was some of the basic principles of development that helped me relax into my role as a parent.
A parent’s guide for understanding baby milestones and brain development
I relaxed knowing things like development isn’t a race, that it is individual, and that while there are sensitive windows for development rarely are there deadlines.
It has allowed me to sit back and watch my child’s own individual and unique development unfold without comparing the timing of every step, every word, or every “milestone.”
Mother Nature Has Built in “Catch Up” Periods
As a new parent, it is so easy to get caught up in the milestone charts– to worry if your child isn’t crawling by age 7 months or walking by 10 months. Milestone charts are helpful when children are extremely far off from average in identifying issues and getting early interventions in place. But they can also create unnecessary worry — but here’s the thing — mother nature has allowed for some periods of catch-up growth. Here are a few examples:
- Often a child who shows early verbal ability will be a later crawler and walker. And vice versa, an early walker, may be a late talker — but they catch up and even out in no time.
- There is evidence from animal models that sensitive caregiving after birth can reverse effects of a stressful pregnancy.
- Children under the age of two often enter a period of rapid growth following a sickness. So, while growth may be deterred during an illness, the body catches up once well.
These are just a few examples, but development is full of subtle periods of growth that are more rapid and allow for repair. While children cannot recover from all stressors in life, they are remarkably resilient. The fact that they are in a state of constant change and development is a large part of that resilience.
Development does not Equal Progression
This is one of the most misunderstood aspects of development. When I would teach development to college students I would ask them to define “development” on the first day. Inevitably, words like progression, advancement, and improvement would be part of their definitions. On the other hand, regression was never part of their definitions.
Development is progress, but it is also regress.
It is both increases and decreases, or gains and losses. When you think of development as a complex system involving the physical, the cognitive, the emotional, and the social systems you can begin to imagine how this works. With every new thing learned, there are new connections within the system, which means reorganization within the system, including some losses as well as gains.
A few examples of regression in childhood development
- Unused brain pathways are trimmed down, used pathways are built up. Losing pathways makes the brain more streamlined — thus regression or losses are just as important as progress and gains.
- Changes in the nervous system and rapid brain growth can cause a temporary disruption in sleep patterns as the system reorganizes (hello infant sleep regressions!)
- Infant crying naturally increases from about birth to 6 weeks of age. Not something you would usually think of as “progress.” But it is development — as the baby’s nervous system develops they become more awake and aware and hence louder and more demanding. By 6 weeks they’ve begun to understand that they can depend on you to respond to their cries and the overall amount of crying and intensity will slowly start to decrease.
Think of it like this — that new little bundle of joy will be going through several growth spurts which will throw their system into chaos. With time, they will reorganize and you will settle into a period of stability– until the next growth spurt comes along.
Hopefully knowing these things about child development will help you be a little easier on yourself as a new parent like it did for me. Milestones are rough guides and development is highly individual.
You can make mistakes (and you will, I did!) and it won’t forever change your child’s development– there are plenty of built in chances to get it right.
And when that little baby starts crying more and sleeping less, ask yourself if it could be a normal part of growing rather than listening to that little voice in your head that is telling you that you should have never used a pacifier or you should have used a pacifier or all the other little things we worry about. That baby will be growing and changing and there will be many transitions along the way that both you and they will have to adjust too — and that is the essence of development.
- For more on child development and to join other parents who are learning as we go, check out some of my other articles below and sign up for my newsletter where I share my recent articles and resources.
- For more about growth spurts and leaps: Top Four Things to Know about Child Development
- For how to cope when your child in is the midst of a growth spurt or leap: The Surprising Reason your Child is Suddenly Cranky (and what to do about it!)
- On what to expect for the first 3 Months: 4 Things Every Parents Needs to Know About the “Fourth Trimester”
Ashley Soderlund is a mother and child development psychologist who writes about positive parenting, children’s emotional intelligence and practical tips on her blog, Nurture and Thrive. Follow her on Facebook, Pinterest, or Instagram.
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