Sometimes I wonder if developmental milestones should be called developmental millstones as this topic causes so much anxiety for parents. I want to thank Nielen, a first-time mother, for sharing her story. She writes:
It feels like the first words I heard after meeting my baby daughter was “watch out for those milestones”. Yes, it’s probably a slight exaggeration, but it’s definitely the phrase I remember hearing most when she was younger.
Many parents feel overwhelmed by the thought that their precious child may not reach their developmental milestones. The idea of milestones has been around for ages. The milestone story comes from long ago when stones were placed along a road to mark a mile as a simple way of measuring. Developmental milestones have been worked out as average markers for a child’s development broken down into areas that can be easily measured, such as sitting, walking and how many words are spoken at what age. Other milestones, for example empathy, kindness and sharing with others are more difficult to measure, and are therefore ignored even though they may be as important for life.
An uncertain journey
Many children reach developmental milestones naturally, with ease and subsequent joy. Each milestone reached by the child is celebrated as if it is the parent’s own achievement. Yet this can also be an uncertain journey of hopes and dreams as there is no real knowing the future, as Nielen explains here:
Every first-time mother (and often father) I’ve ever met is hyper-aware of her child’s milestones. Discussion boards and parenting groups are rife with questions like ‘is it normal for your child to not walk by 13 months?’ The power of Google has opened rabbit holes of anxiety surrounding every small issue.
My daughter, our first child, was born at 30 weeks, 10 weeks prematurely. She spent almost seven weeks in the neonatal ICU (NICU). Other first-time mothers were lovingly posting pictures of their children at 3 weeks, all swaddled up at home. I was trying to take pictures where it wouldn’t look like she was in an incubator.
Being a ‘good’ parent
As parents we tend to measure our own parental ‘goodness’ through our children’s achievements and reaching their developmental milestones. We all do this as there is no easy way to know how to measure being a good parent. We allow fear of not being good enough to guide us rather than love itself. Yet, we know through research that children who feel loved and secure explore more and are therefore more able to learn.
I wasted a lot of my daughter’s first few months of life by being petrified. I was scared of her getting hurt in that NICU, but to be honest, I think I was more petrified of what was waiting for me when I should leave. I wasn’t certain I would be a good parent in the first place, much less with a child who wouldn’t follow the ‘normal’ route.
We so easily waste energy dwelling on and living out our fears that our children will reach their milestones, rather than investing time into how best to support a child through the tough and good parts of life. It may be paradoxical but children are more likely to reach their milestones if they feel supported.
Focusing on end goals
The celebration of reaching a developmental milestone may make it seem as if children just stand up one day and walk. This focus on the end goal may cause parents to forget the many times children fall and get up again to learn another step. It is apparently ‘normal’ to fall a thousand times or more before achieving the walking milestone. Each fall may demand much more love and support than the final achievement of walking. For in this a child learns that a journey of both the ups and downs are important to loved ones. Parents can learn that the ups and downs are both equally valuable for learning lessons.
Milestones remind me of the long wait for my daughter to finally start smiling. We were told she was born 10 weeks early and would take 10 weeks longer to reach ‘normal’ milestones. For some reason, maybe because it’s one of the first things a child learns to do, I was hung up on getting her to smile. I was literally counting the days, petrified of her smiling only after that 10 weeks permitted. Would that mean she was doomed forever? Would everything be futile if she smiled at 11 weeks? I certainly believed so. She did eventually smile, I think within that 10-week time frame, but I’ve learnt to be a bit gentler on myself and on her. It’s not easy and I think I struggle more than I let on, but I think it’s crucial.
As parents it is easy to focus on a developmental milestone or end goal. We do need to appreciate that skills, effort, falling and learning through mistakes is also necessary to reach any milestone, and may even be more important than reaching it. The process of achieving developmental milestones should not be a competition among parents in regard to whose child is better and will reach the goal first, but rather a celebration of learning and growth.
Let us learn to be gentle with ourselves as parents.
Let us learn to love and support our children through all of life’s ups and downs.
Let us learn that all our children are precious regardless of reaching developmental milestones.