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What are developmental delays?

By Amanda Morin

At a Glance

  • All kids develop skills at different rates.

  • There are five main areas of development in which kids can have delays.

  • A developmental delay is more than being “a little behind” in one area of development.

“How old was yours when she first rolled over?”

“Mine has been talking in complete sentences for months!”

Talking about meeting milestones is common among proud parents and caregivers. But it can be nerve-racking to see or hear about other kids passing milestones before your child does. You may worry about developmental delays. There’s more to it than being “slower to develop” or “a little behind.” A developmental delay means kids are continually behind in gaining the skills expected by a certain age. 

A developmental delay can happen in just one area or in a few. A global developmental delay is when kids have delays in at least two areas.

Not meeting developmental milestones at the same rate as other kids isn’t always a reason to worry. Children don’t all develop skills on a strict timetable. 

And developmental delays are typically caused by things beyond a family’s control. For example, a speech delay can be caused by temporary hearing loss from multiple ear infections, which aren’t uncommon in babies and toddlers. 

When a child isn’t meeting multiple milestones as quickly as expected, a health care provider or a childcare provider may suggest an early intervention evaluation  to understand what’s going on. 

Dive deeper

The 5 areas of skill development

Kids develop skills in five main areas of development:

  1. Cognitive (or thinking) skills: The ability to think, learn, and solve problems. 

  2. Social and emotional skills: The ability to get along with others, communicate needs, and show and express feelings.

  3. Speech and language skills: The ability to use and understand language. 

  4. Fine and gross motor skills: The ability to coordinate small and large muscles to explore the world. 

  5. Daily living activities: The ability to manage everyday tasks. 

Learn more about how kids develop skills in their first few years .

Causes of developmental delays

There’s no one cause of developmental delays, but there are some risk factors. They include:

  • Complications at birth: Being born prematurely ; low birth weight; not getting enough oxygen at birth

  • Environmental issues: Lead poisoning; poor nutrition; exposure to alcohol or drugs before birth; trauma

  • Other medical conditions: Chronic ear infections; vision problems; illnesses, conditions, or injuries that have a significant and long-term effect on kids’ day-to-day activities

Read one mother’s story about discovering her son’s developmental delays, and his path to thriving.

Developmental delay vs. developmental disability

Doctors sometimes use the terms developmental delay and developmental disability to mean the same thing. They’re not the same, though.

Kids can outgrow or catch up from developmental delays. Developmental disabilities are lifelong, though people can still make progress and thrive. Conditions that can cause developmental disabilities include Down syndrome, autism , fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), and brain injuries.

Sometimes it’s hard to determine if a young child has a delay or a disability. That’s one reason doctors may use the words interchangeably. Even when it’s not clear what’s causing the delay,  early intervention often helps  kids catch up.

Next steps

Share any concerns about development with your health care provider. If you’re interested in an evaluation, they can give you a referral to an early intervention agency in your state. And learn more about:

If your child has developmental delays, explore three small things you can do to help your child make progress.

Related topics

Root causes Root causes

Did you know?

Kids with ADHD are much more likely to have a learning disability than kids who don’t have ADHD. They’re also more likely to have anxiety or depression.

More on: Root causes

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom