Updated child developmental milestone guidelines can improve early detection of autism, developmental disabilities

Developmental milestones are things that at least 75% of children can do by a certain age and involve the ways they speak, play, move, learn and act.

What are developmental milestones?

A child’s milestones, such as speaking their first word or taking their first step, can be an exciting time for parents, but these moments also serve as important clues that a child is developmentally on track.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), developmental milestones are things that at least 75% of children can do by a certain age, and the ways a child speaks, plays, moves, learns and acts provide important indicators about their development.

What is a developmental milestone checklist?

The CDC, along with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), updated its checklist of developmental milestones in 2022. These guidelines aim to help parents with early identification of autism and developmental delays. The four categories used in all age groups are social-emotional, language/communication, cognitive and motor skills.

“The developmental checklist should be a ‘must’ at well checks from infancy through 5 years of age,” said Matthew D. Kinney, M.D., pediatrician with Norton Children’s Medical Group. “These guidelines may help with consistency across different providers, clinics, health systems and states, and help pediatricians identify and refer children with developmental delays.”

Why are developmental milestones important?

Developmental and behavioral disorders are common among children in the U.S., and 1 in 6 children between the ages of 3 and 17 are diagnosed with at least one developmental or behavioral disorder, such as autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or a learning disorder. The updated guidelines, which include 159 milestones across 12 age-based checklists, offer more clarity for children who may need a referral for further evaluation.

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“Early identification of and intervention for developmental disabilities can improve a child’s outcomes,” Dr. Kinney said. “We want to work with parents to identify any missed milestones so children have more opportunities for treatment, especially before they start school.”

Developmental milestone screening

During a child’s regular checkups, a provider will ask the parent about the child’s milestones and observe the child play and talk during the exam. However, parents know their child best and should bring up any concerns, such as missing milestones or a loss of skills, with their provider.

In addition to the developmental surveillance described above, the AAP recommends additional formal developmental and behavioral screening for all children at specific ages (9 months, 18 months and 30 months), which often require caregivers to complete a paper form. Similarly, the AAP recommends all children should be formally screened for autism spectrum disorder during well-child checks at 18 months and 24 months.