It can be a huge surprise when your baby masters a major developmental milestone ahead of schedule, and if it's not a one-off situation you might start to wonder if all this early development is a sign your child is gifted. But how can you tell if your baby is advanced or just an early bloomer? (If you can at all, that is.)
For every milestone, there is a wide time frame where it's considered "normal" for a baby to master the skill.
"When babies and children meet developmental milestones ahead of schedule, it’s natural to draw the conclusion that they are 'advanced,'" Sara DuMond M.D. tells Romper. She warns this "sets the stage for potentially unrealistic expectations for that child’s development going forward." Whitney Casares M.D. agrees, telling Romper that early development can be misleading because "some babies take longer to master a skill, but then are more proficient at it than other babies once they finally do."
Interestingly, there isn't much data out there on early signs of advancement.
"Research thus far has tended to focus on developmental delays rather than advanced development," Amy Liu M.D. tells Romper. Essentially, there isn't proof that babies who meet milestones early will go on to demonstrate advancement later in life, but there is evidence that meeting certain milestones early can be an early indicator of other diagnoses. For example, she continues, "a child who walks earlier may not necessarily go on to become an athlete" whereas "a child who rolls early in infancy" should be monitored because it may mean they have "increased tone which is concerning for other medical problems."
That's not to say all early development is a sign of a larger problem.
"A baby who is advanced in the early years won’t necessarily be more advanced later on, but it can be an indicator they’ll be particularly interested or skilled in one particular area," Dr. Casares explains.
"Some children will truly fall into the category of 'advanced' whether that be with respect to gross motor development, language skills, or cognitive development," Dr. DuMond says, but won't be labeled as such. "Child development is never a straight line from point A to point B, and because all children develop at their own unique rate," she adds.
All three experts agree that parents should initiate a conversation with their child's pediatrician if they suspect they are more advanced than most. Dr. DuMond explains that the "pediatrician will be able to look at the child’s global development, and make recommendations if any additional testing is appropriate for their age and stage." Dr. Liu notes that pediatricians can "discuss additional resources" with parents, particularly if the advanced development is a potential warning sign.
Every expert also notes that parents should not try to "push" their baby in any area of advancement. "Most children tend to be advanced in one area and normal in other areas so I would recommend that families encourage the other areas of development as well," says Dr. Liu. Dr. DuMond encourages parents to "continue to follow [their] child’s lead, rather than pushing them to 'achieve' that next level."
"Too much pressure on your child or on yourself can backfire and we know encouraging social-emotional development and resilience is more important than focusing on accomplishments," Dr. Casares agrees.
More than anything, milestones are an opportunity for parents to teach their children skills that go far beyond their current development. Dr. Casares tells parents to "encourage their kids to love learning and to try again when they fail [in areas] they’re less skilled or confident in" rather than focusing solely on areas of advancement. This approach will foster the milestones they've already achieved and equip them with emotional tools to help them cope and show resilience during life's challenges.
Whitney Casares, M.D., M.P.H., author of The New Baby Blueprint: Caring for You and Your Little One and founder of www.modernmommydoc.com
Amy Liu, M.D., MPH, Assistant Professor in the Department of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine