Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Child Development

For Pediatric Developmental Health, Early Is Everything

A child's developmental health may rely on early interventions.

Key points

  • The journey from evaluation to diagnosis to treatment is almost always prolonged.
  • The wait-and-see approach may sometimes cause more harm than good.

Around a child’s first birthday, parents and caregivers can often start noticing signs and behaviors that could point to developmental delay in their children, causing concern for their well-being. These concerns generally arise when a child misses or fails to reach certain developmental milestones, including delayed motor skills or troubles with speech, eye contact, and communication, that parents would expect by a certain age.

Understandably concerned, parents typically turn to their family doctors and pediatricians for guidance, hoping to receive answers and assurances about their child’s development and find immediate solutions if and where necessary. Yet, when expressing these concerns, it’s common for family doctors to prescribe patience, assuring parents that all children develop at their own unique pace and that their child’s development will likely catch up soon.

While this advice aims to curb worry and avoid unnecessary treatments, the “wait-and-see” approach may ultimately cause more harm than good, delaying crucial interventions that could otherwise improve a child’s lifelong outcomes. For early developmental and behavioral health concerns, my motto is: Early is everything!

Here are the top reasons why it’s so important for parents and caregivers to seek answers about their children’s development right away, acting on initial concerns as soon as they arise.

Get Answers and Peace of Mind

As a pediatric specialist and parent, I’m well aware of the stress and anguish parents and caregivers experience when concerns about their child’s health occur. To mitigate stress and gain the answers and peace of mind you need to best care for your child, acting on your suspicions immediately can help. The average age of initial parental concern is 14 months, and, since parents and caregivers know their children best, their suspicions are often correct. If your primary care provider insists on a ‘wait and see’ approach without any treatment plan, it’s worth pushing back. Advocating for your child's needs and insisting on an evaluation are essential. And, if your concerns aren’t being properly addressed, seek a second opinion, or request a referral to a specialist—such as a developmental behavioral pediatrician, pediatric neurologist, child psychologist, or child psychiatrist. Your child’s health, and your own, will benefit immensely.

Determine What Treatments Are Available

Once you have received the answers you seek, you can find the support and services that suit your child’s needs, if a developmental condition is identified.

Depending on your child’s diagnosis and unique developmental weaknesses, a range of therapy options and early intervention programs are available; these can be tailored to address their specific developmental challenges. These services include occupational and physical therapy to help develop and improve fine motor skills, sensory processing, and self-care skills, as well as early childhood speech and language therapy to address speech production and language development.

If your child is diagnosed with a condition such as autism or ADHD, treatments such as behavioral therapy can help your child learn socially appropriate behaviors and develop important skills like communication, socialization, and self-help—positively influencing not only their early development but confidence and success later in life.

Stay Ahead of Delays in Accessing Care

Regardless of a pediatrician’s primary opinion, the journey from evaluation to diagnosis to treatment is almost always prolonged. For every 100,000 children in the US, there are roughly just 11 child and adolescent psychiatrists. For every 19 million children with developmental concerns, there are only around 800 developmental-behavioral pediatricians in practice today. Compounded by wider medical workforce shortages and access barriers, families can be forced to wait months, even years, before receiving an official diagnosis and accessing appropriate care.

Delayed diagnosis of behavioral and developmental conditions is a missed opportunity. Your child’s brain experiences its most rapid period of growth before age 3, making any interventions during this time highly effective for their brain’s development. Therefore, the earlier you act on your concerns, the earlier you can join and maneuver the ever-growing waitlists, receive a diagnosis for your child, and initiate personalized interventions and therapies before the critical window has closed.

Early Interventions Are More Effective

Research shows that without early diagnosis and interventions, children at risk of behavioral and developmental conditions, like autism or ADHD, are at higher risk of life-long comorbid conditions and are more likely to require psychiatric treatment and medications later in life.

Early interventions, however, can significantly improve your child’s ability to learn early skills like speaking, listening, playing, socializing, managing their emotions, and dealing with stress and change; all of which will lead to greater success in school and adult life. Indeed, studies show that intervention within the critical neurodevelopmental window yields significantly higher intellectual and adaptive behavioral outcomes among children with behavioral or developmental delays, especially for those on the autism spectrum.

Set Your Child Up for Success

Acting on the first signs of developmental delay in a child is not just about addressing immediate concerns, it’s also about laying a strong foundation for a child's future well-being. Through early interventions, we, as parents, caregivers, and physicians, can address behaviors and traits that may point to an early behavioral or developmental condition before they can manifest into a full-blown disorder.

While no two children are the same, and many may still require long-term treatments or therapies, early intervention treatments and therapies for children at risk of such conditions, can help them, and their families, better understand and address their limitations and, just as importantly, refine their strengths. In doing so, children can learn important skills and access tools that will help them manage their traits or conditions and ultimately benefit from greater self-esteem and confidence throughout their lives.

More from Psychology Today