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Signs of Developmentally Delayed Toddlers

By Elijah Jenkins ; Updated August 14, 2017

Every parent has had that niggling sense of doubt at one time or another about a toddler's development. Usually, this worry fades as the toddler begins to talk more, to walk steadily or to show an interest in other young children. Occasionally, though, the toddler may have a developmental delay. As a loving parent, it is crucial that you possess a basic knowledge of typical and atypical toddler development.


A 12-month-old who still doesn't sit up alone for an extended period of time, who isn't crawling or pulling up to stand using furniture or who has a strong preference for one side of the body over the other needs to see his pediatrician, says Healthy Children (Reference 1). Toddlers are empowered by the ability to get around and explore the environment. At 18 months old, states Zero to Three, your toddler should be walking. While it is typical for a new walker to be unsteady, this unsteadiness should last a few months and be replaced by a steady gait. The average two-year-old is able to run, to climb up stairs while holding onto a rail and to jump down from a low step and land on the ground, notes Zero to Three (Reference 3). If your two-year-old isn't able to do all of these things, he may have a delay.


Between 12 months and 18 months of age, your child should be able to grasp small objects with the thumb and index finger. This is one of the basic fine motor skills necessary for many other developmental skills. If your toddler is between 18 months and 24 months old and still uses the whole hand to grasp an object, cannot throw a ball a few feet or shows a strong preference for one hand or arm over the other, you need to talk to your pediatrician about these concerns. If your child was born prematurely, it is especially important to consult the pediatrician. Healthy Children says, "Premature birth is associated with an increased risk of cerebral palsy." (Reference 4)


At 12 months old, your toddler should vocalize many different sounds, both consonants and vowels, says the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (Reference 5). If she vocalizes little, does not use vocalizations and instead gestures or points or does not turn to look when you call her name, then you need to consult your pediatrician. Between 12 months and 24 months old, you toddler should say more words every month. These words may not be very clear; it is common and normal for your two-year-old to say "tat" for "cat" and other word approximations. By the time she is two years old, your toddler should also understand much of what you tell her. If she doesn't understand simple one-step directions like "Get your shoes" or isn't pointing to objects in the house when you ask him to show you their locations, it would be wise to ask your pediatrician for a referral to a pediatric speech-language pathologist.


A critical sign of emotional health in your toddler is in the way he imitates you and other adults or even her siblings. Imitation is the central way that your toddler learns what his role is within the family and the larger culture around him. "Occasionally, however, a child does not interact in this expected manner. Instead, the child seems to exist in his or her own world, a place characterized by repetitive routines, odd and peculiar behaviors, problems in communication, and a total lack of social awareness or interest in others," states the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. These are possible signs of autism. Children in the foster care system, in particular, are more likely to show signs of emotional delays. Due to "poor pre-natal care, neglect, abuse, and other family issues," states the American Academy of Pediatrics, these children are more likely to show extremely aggressive or antisocial behaviors, difficulty establishing a bond with caregivers and symptoms of neglect such as food hoarding.


As your little one explores and gains confidence in his fledgling abilities, her self-help skills will naturally increase. She should be able to drink a small amount of liquid from an open cup, begin to feed herself with a spoon and try to put on her shoes and possibly her pants by herself, says Zero to Three. Between 12 months and 24 months of age, your toddler is asserting her independence in ways both cute and annoying. Her problem-solving skills are blossoming--she is figuring out how to get things she wants both through communication and through manipulation. If your little one doesn't try to get into cabinets and drawers, insist on feeding himself, turn doorknobs or engage in simple pretend play, then it's possible then she has a delay in her adaptive skills.

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