Worried About Child Development

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Taken from Growing Concerns -- A childrearing question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson

Question: We recently watched a video of when our 4-year-old daughter was 19 months old. It was amazing how different she was from how our 20-month-old son is at this age. She would say "No, Mommy!" and could also sing "Happy Birthday to You." Our son isn't nearly as verbal. His version of "no" is "Huh-uh." We haven't read to our son as much as we did to our daughter, although now his bedtime routine includes books. We're afraid he may have suffered from being the second child. Should we worry? Have we done something wrong, and, if so, what can we do to fix it?

Answer: You're not the first parents to worry that a second child's development lags behind that of the firstborn. Most of us find that we never can match that total, undivided attention we gave to our first baby. But that doesn't mean that a second child's slower pace of development is the result of parental neglect. Even within the same family, each child is unique and develops at his or her own pace. Many times, a child's developmental rate varies across different domains. For example, a child may be advanced in verbal skills, but slower in developing motor skills or vice versa. A second child in the family might develop spoken language more slowly because big brother or sister speaks for them, or, alternatively, doesn't let them get a word in edgewise. And some children just seem to have a personality that leads them to listen and absorb for many months, and then suddenly they begin speaking in complete sentences. Whatever the reason for your son's slower pace of language development, it's not uncommon for a 20-month-old not to have a large vocabulary. And at this tender age, your son still has many opportunities to benefit from your love, attention and stimulation. Here are some things to focus on as you support his growth and learning:

- Talk to your son as you go through your daily activities together. Describe what he's doing, seeing, touching, and tasting. o Use music and silly rhymes to engage your son in the playfulness of language. Clap your hands, dance around the room, and repeat the same songs until he becomes familiar with them. (Before long he'll probably be able to fill in the blank if you leave out the last word of a familiar line.)

- Continue to make time to read with your son each day. Take your cues from him, letting him choose his favorite picture stories and reading only as long as he's interested. o Follow his interests, finding stories and language-based activities that focus on things he likes. For example, if he's crazy about trains or puppies or clowns, work those into your games and reading time.

- Give him chances to use words to express his choices. For example, in the morning put out two shirts and ask him to choose the blue one or the red one. Or encourage him to tell you if he wants cereal or toast for breakfast. (Even if he can't say the words yet, learning to understand the question is a big part of language development.)

Certainly, if you see other signs that your son is lagging developmentally--or if you don't see progress in spoken language over the next few months--talk to your pediatrician and request a developmental screening. But for now, it sounds as if your son understands language adequately for his age, given that he at least says, "uh-uh" for, "no." I'd predict that soon he will master many words, including that powerful word "no." And then you may long for the good old days when he didn't know how to say it.

Editor's Note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to mferick@tc.umn.edu or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 3 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
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