If you are a parent you probably have heard the term ‘milestone’ or ‘developmental skill’. These are the means by which we measure our baby’s growth and development. When did your baby first smile? Around 6 weeks? If so she is like most babies who reach this milestone at approximately the same age.

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Which milestones are important and when a delayed milestone is something you should worry about, are questions many parents ask. This month Meg Faure explores what’s important, what’s not and what can you do to assist your baby’s development.

What will interest most people is that it is not the obvious milestones like sitting, walking and talking that I am going to mention. It’s those subtle little milestones that we barely notice emerging until our baby is doing them daily, that make a big impact on their long term development: smiling, being on their tummies, rolling, crawling and babbling.

Smiling – Probably one of the most important early milestones, smiling happens at around 6 weeks of age. Many babies do smile earlier and if you are sure you saw a smile in response to your face or voice from about two weeks on, the chances are you are right. Dreamy ‘milk’ smiles that are not in response to anything happen a lot in the early days and are not social smiles. If your baby is not social smiling at all by 8 weeks of age you may want to mention it to your paediatrician and then monitor her interest in the world and babbling later in the first year. What can you do to encourage smiling? Catch your baby in the calm alert state, after a good nap and when her tummy is full and then make a funny noise or just smile at her.

Tummy time – Spending time on her tummy is hardly something that you would think of as a skill, but it is a position that your baby really needs to tolerate and spend time in, in order to develop other key milestones. Rolling and crawling which are both vital milestones will only develop if your baby is on her tummy frequently in the first six months. From day one make sure your baby gets to play in the tummy position. This will force her to lift her neck and develop the extensor muscles of her back. If she won’t tolerate the tummy position, lie back in a slightly raised position propped against pillows and rest her, on her tummy, on your chest. She will be encouraged to raise her head to look at you and if you are not completely horizontal, she will not have to work so hard to do so.

Rolling – This vital milestone emerges in the first six months but varies hugely between babies. Most babies prefer to roll back to tummy first but this will also vary between different children. When and which way your baby rolls is not important, it is just important that she does. Rolling takes a lot of strength from core tummy muscles and it’s these muscles that are vital for crawling next and also for general postural control in your toddler.

Crawling – The controversial milestone. Some babies don’t crawl. It is the one milestone that is most commonly skipped. Babies who don’t crawl go from lying and rolling to sitting and then walking. The controversy is that some health care professionals advice parents not to worry as it’s an optional milestone. The truth is that it is a very important milestone for the development of shoulder muscles, coordination and exploring the world before walking. Babies who don’t crawl may not do so because they don’t like the feel of the floor texture due to tactile defensiveness in their hands. Others don’t crawl because they did not develop their back muscles as they did not spend time on their tummies. To encourage crawling, put your baby on her tummy on the floor from early on. If by 9 months your baby is not crawling try to help her by placing a towel rolled into a ‘strap’ under her tummy with each end sticking out on the left and right. Then lift both sides just enough to support her in the crawling position.

Babbling – Another important milestone and one that is directly related to exposure is babbling. The more a baby is spoken to the more she will say and the sooner she will speak. Speak to your baby, copy her early sounds and label everything she sees for her. Encourage her to babble by taking turns. If she says: ”babababa” repeat it to her or even show her a dolly and say “bababa”

When considering your baby’s milestones remember these top tips:

  1. Developmental milestones are only guidelines. All babies are different and will develop at a different pace. If only one milestone is delayed and your baby is otherwise doing well, do not be too concerned.
  2. The subtle milestones are often more important than the ones we notice more readily.
  3. Do not be tempted to compare your baby – it will stress you out. And trust me – a mother of 3 – development often evens out at 18 months!
  4. Spend time on the floor with your baby, talking, smiling and giving her tummy time.
  5. If you are worried and more than one of the above milestones is slow to develop – seek the advice of your paediatrician.

About Meg Faure

Megan Faure OTR, is an Occupational Therapist who has worked with babies in the USA and South Africa. Meg co- authored Baby Sense, Sleep Sense and Feeding Sense and in 2011 wrote The Baby Sense Secret. In 2004 Meg founded the Baby Sense company and developed a range of baby products and a smart phone Application called Baby Sense Day-by-Day. Megan runs practice in Cape Town, treating babies and toddlers with sleep problems and sensory processing difficulties. She is married with three children James (16), Alex (13) and Emily (9).

Meg’s website, www.megfaure.com, is where Meg shares not only her parenting advice and articles but also interacts weekly with moms in her BabyMeetUPs. Meg’s facebook page – and twitter @MegFaure are abuzz with the latest in baby advice and research.