She was probably just 1 year old when a little boy the same age on her street was climbing like a mini-gymnast. She wasn't yet walking. But the little girl's mother didn't skip a beat when her neighbor appeared to be preening over her son's achievements.
"But what does he say?" her mother asked the neighbor.
"That's because I already knew about 25 words, and could sing 'Happy birthday,' " recalled the girl who is now Dr. Margery Lackman, a pediatrician at Sutter East Bay Medical Group in Berkeley.
The point of her story? Each baby, each child matures and develops differently. And parents should note that there is a range of time during which certain physical and mental behaviors occur and should take stock of their own genetic history in determining whether their children are growing up healthy and safe.
"Think of developmental milestones as guideposts rather than definite targets your child should reach," said Dr. Phil Tang, a Sutter Health physician from the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. "Much as each child has his or her own unique personality, each child has a unique pace for reaching developmental stages. In fact, there is a wide range in what's perfectly normal."
That said, parents have reason to be concerned if their child isn't speaking by a certain age, lifting her head after a year, or making any eye contact or speaking by age 3. If a child fails to meet those typical milestones, there probably is a real problem or two that needs to be addressed.
"Early detection of any developmental delays, especially in children under 3, can make a tremendous difference in your child being able to catch up," Tang said.
The lesson for parents, Lackman said, is to give their babies lots of personal interaction time and safe places to explore to stimulate them. Their time will come. And if it doesn't, she said, parents should seek out pediatricians they really trust, because those doctors could be in their children's lives for 18 years. Tang concurred with Lackerman that in addition to a doctor's opinion, a parent's daily observation is probably the best way to detect when things are normal, and when things seem off.
Play groups are important, too.
Meghan, who asked that her last name not be used, said what's been helpful to her is joining a play group with babies who are about the same age as her infant. "I can see what's coming up next," she said, adding that the range of ages in baby Blake's play group is about six weeks. "So, then I can see what I should look for," she said, "when they should be clapping or waving."
Tang added that parents can get a lot of information from simple informal observations of a child, especially when he or she is around other children. Extremely disruptive behavior can also be a red flag for an underlying developmental issue, he said.
There are indeed certain developmental milestones that babies and children should hit. Lackman said if parents want to read more about it, there are plenty of good sources. Two examples are guidelines put out by the American Academy of Pediatrics and "Ages and Stages" by HealthyChildren.org.
But in essence: Babies should be sitting up at about 6 months, crawling between 7 and 9 months, walking at a year, and speaking about 10 to 20 words at 18 months. But again, she cautioned, there are several months leeway on either side of these averages. And, she pointed out, that family history can play a role, too. If relatives in the family didn't walk until 14 months, then that genetic makeup is probably going to be passed down.
There are times to be worried, though. Lackman remembers seeing a baby who couldn't lift up her head or push up from the floor long after 6 months. The baby's first doctor said it probably was normal and to wait a bit. But the parents wanted a second opinion. Lackman said that in the end, the baby was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy.
So, while Lackman strongly encourages a bond between parent and pediatrician, she also reminded parents that they know their children best and are their best advocates. She highly recommends getting another point of view or finding another doctor or specialist if parents think something is not right.
In the end, child development is not a linear process. Parents should realize there are plateaus when it seems like nothing much is happening and spikes when children may magically seem like they've learned several things at once. And then, Lackman warned, watch out.