If you wonder about your child's development, speak up
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Dr. Bridget McArdle offers simple, reassuring advice to parents who are worried that their young child might have developmental delays: "Let's talk."
McArdle, a pediatrician at Henry Ford Medical Center – Sterling Heights, said she wants parents to know that it's OK to raise concerns with their doctor about a child's physical or mental development.
"I would much rather someone come into my office and say, 'I'm concerned about this,' than have them keep quiet for whatever reason," she said. "That way, I can offer reassurance that it's perfectly natural to wonder if your child is developing at an age-appropriate rate and that help is available if there is a problem."
Sometimes, parents want to avoid the embarrassment of raising what turns out to be an unfounded concern with a doctor. But McArdle promises that pediatricians aren't judgmental of parents looking out for their child's well-being.
For other parents, the perceived social stigma of having a child with a developmental delay is a barrier to discussing potential issues, McArdle said. However, those attitudes are gradually changing with the intensified focus on identifying children with developmental delays, including autism spectrum disorder, she said.
Watch for the signs
Many developmental delays aren't immediately obvious, especially to first-time parents who have no previous point of reference for age-appropriate behaviors.
In addition, not all issues are easily addressed without further testing, and often initially fall into such broad categories as speech, language or social development concerns.
However, pediatricians rely on known milestones to track children's development. For example, children at age 2 should have the ability to speak two-word sentences, and 3-year-olds should use three-word sentences. At age 4, children should ideally complete full sentences that are easily understood by listeners, McArdle said.
Pediatricians keep those and other guidelines in mind as they perform developmental screening on young children, further highlighting the importance of regular doctor's visits, McArdle said. "Vaccinations are not the only reason we want to see them – we're also looking at their development," she said.
Not meeting commonly accepted milestones isn't necessarily cause for alarm. "Not every child will do everything at the same rate," McArdle said.
Also, some behaviors – such as when a child refuses to wear denim, possibly giving rise to concerns about sensory processing disorders – may turn out as nothing more than children asserting their independence, she said.
Early intervention is a key
However, additional screening may prove advisable. Depending on the nature of the concern, McArdle may refer a young patient to a neurologist or to Build Up Michigan for testing. Build Up's mission is to provide free, preschool-based assistance to 3- to 5-year-olds who need it to become ready for kindergarten.
Such intervention is often enough to resolve issues before a child enters kindergarten, McArdle said. Almost all children benefit from receiving treatment as early as possible, when their young minds are most malleable, she said.
"With early intervention, they might not need as many services down the road," McArdle said.
That's a point she said she stresses when raising the possibility of a developmental delay to parents. Although they ultimately want what's best for their child, hearing such news can still prove unsettling.
McArdle said it's important for doctors – as well as family members such as grandparents who might have concerns about a child's development – to remain supportive, nonjudgmental and positive.
"Sometimes you do have to kind of tiptoe around things," she said. "But in the end, I know that parents would much rather have me tell them I have a concern, because a child is going to be much better off if we begin teaching them life skills as early as possible."
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This story is provided and presented by our sponsor Build Up Michigan.