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The 5 Stages of Reactions to Babies With Developmental Delays and Their Milestones

It’s no secret how a child grows. Everyone knows the sequence of development, give or take a few months, and people get excited about the achievement of each new ability. Parents track milestones in baby books. Strangers in the grocery store ask, “How old?” following up with related questions about the age-appropriate milestone. Even kids want to know what that other, younger kid in the corner can do.

But when you have a child with a developmental delay or disability, milestones feel different. It’s a blend of happiness if your child meets them (even months or years past their “expected” arrival) and a strange conglomeration of sadness, hope and mourning, with a hefty dose of “he’ll-get-there-when-and-if-he-gets-there” and “I-don’t-really-care-if-he-gets-there-anyhow.” 

Because of this, the reactions to your child’s development and behavior becomes an interesting progression to observe.

Stage 1: It starts off innocently enough. The lady in front of you in line, the librarian you’re pretty sure does story time, your aunt you never see, a friend whose baby is two years ahead of yours they all want to know what’s happening in your baby’s life, and innocently assume your child is a train on the set of tracks they know.

“Oh, 3 months old. What a cutie. He must have the best smile when his daddy walks in the door!”

“He’s probably rolling over and almost sitting up by now. How exciting!”

“I’m sure he is just crawling everywhere! Hope you’ve baby proofed. My niece was into everything once she started crawling around.” 

Stage 2: Slowly, the curiosity switches to a gentle assessment of the situation when their innocent assumption proves wrong:

“Really, he isn’t trying to talk? My little one was babbling all the time when he was that age.”

“He is pointing though, right? That’s such a fun stage.”

Stage 3: Eventually, the judgment and blame begins to creep in:

“Well, I’m sure he at least says ‘Mom’….No? Well, maybe you talk to him so much he doesn’t have a chance to get a word in.”

“Hey there, that kid’s almost as big as you are! You sure you have to carry him? He can walk, can’t he?”

“No shoes? I guess he doesn’t need any if you’re just going to keep him on your back all the time in that baby carrier.”

“When my babies were little, I put up a baby gate with really sturdy wood posts, and they all were walking by 10 or 11 months. Have you tried a wooden gate yet?”

Stage 4: The conversation then draws to a close with an oddly dismissive set of reassurances.

“Well, I am sure he’ll learn to [insert unmet milestone here] any day now.”

“I know you said the doctors don’t think he’ll ever be able to do it, but I know God will work a miracle.”

“He’ll grow out of it. Don’t worry.”

“My friend has a friend with a child with the same diagnosis and she went on this special diet and now she’s cured. I’ll have her give you a call. Everything will be fine.”

“He’s just a boy. All boys take time to grow up.”

Stage 5: I’d like to believe that the next development in this conversation is one of genuine support. An apology for making assumptions, judging and minimizing the reality of my family’s life and future. An attempt to understand our unique situation. For some people in our lives (the best ones!), this is the next milestone. When it happens, it’s wonderful, and I don’t mind the process.

For most people, however, this isn’t the case. Short on time or missing the opportunity, I don’t always want to put my advocacy/educator hat on. Maybe next time I’ll send them this blog post and tell them they might want to do more reading on appropriate development and milestones — for themselves.

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A version of this post originally appeared on Couch to Five Acres.

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