The Myth of Milestone Development
Becoming a parent fills your life with an abundance of joy, but there is also considerable angst and responsibility as your child grows. The inherent anxiety of parenthood leads us to seek out structure and guidelines; if we know what to expect and when to expect it, our mind feels more in control. Right? Not so fast… While our desire for structure makes complete sense, it becomes a problem if we latch too tightly to developmental expectations set out by a milestone-driven model.
Milestones are based on averages, offering our society a general benchmark to better understand how our children are developing. It becomes important to step back, however, and realize that essentially none of our children reflect the collective average. A typical age for walking spans 10 to 16 months, for example, and there is an even larger span for words to develop. And development is hardly linear, though the milestone myth leads us to believe development unfolds sequentially. When we map our child’s progress onto the milestone chart, or become too invested in it, we risk losing sight of the unique little person at home. In other words, we miss out on who our child is because we are focused on who we think they should be.
So how do we step back from the milestone-driven model of development? This starts with really connecting with your baby. Engage with your little one and notice how their reactions and responses change as they grow. And follow your child’s lead. Notice what your child is doing and then ask, how can I help my child further develop that; how can I help them evolve what they are already doing? This is an active, engaged form of assessing a child and encouraging growth. You are not checking boxes but rather looking at your child as an individual – who likely came into this world with a strong sense of self – and honoring their own path.
The healthynest developmental activities are one way of inspiring engagement and connection between you and your baby. These exercises are designed to encourage novel experiences, which prime your baby’s brain to learn and soak up information from the world around them. But there is no specific milestone we hope your baby achieves. There is no expectation of how your child should respond to each exercise. Your job as a parent is to notice what your child does and then encourage them to discover more the next time. When we remove the goal – the milestone – you are free to encourage a curious, confident, and attuned baby.
As you try out these activities, you may notice that your baby is not quite ready to focus, not quite ready to grip, not quite ready to balance their body – whatever the task might demand—but notice how they are engaged trying. One of the hardest experiences as a parent is allowing our babies to struggle, but the effort put forth is often more valuable than the achievement. Indeed, we know that persistence and self-regulation while learning is a particularly important trait linked with positive outcomes in adulthood. Step back and scaffold, but try your best not to step in.
Through this new process you are creating a new rubric for development. Let go of the milestones and engage with your little one. Provide opportunities for learning and growth – stimulation, connection, novelty – but allow your little one to direct the path and the pace. Development does not reflect a race to a finish line nor is it a series of milestone to be met. It is a uniquely individual process, defined by resilience, persistence and growth.
As a parent, the best role you can play is to guide and accompany your child through this process, allowing them to explore and experiment at their own pace, so that they can become a connected and happy child. Don’t stress about counting or comparing goals or dates: being present in the moment and making the most out of it, is a fantastic way to ensure that whatever the cadence or sequence of your baby’s development follows, it will be one of profound connection for both of you.