Milestone anxiety is something I commonly see as a pediatrician. It’s the concern parents feel regarding when their babies will hit certain milestones — and if they’ll hit them “on time.”
The constant comparison with other children and the worry that your baby isn’t doing “enough” can lead to so much frustration and stress that a mother can lose sight of the baby who is thriving right in front of her.
When looking at development, remember that every baby will reach a certain skill at a different time. Rather than targeting exact milestone moments, we should look at the expected ranges of a certain skill.
Take walking, for example. The “normal” range of walking can be anywhere from 7 months to 18 months. Some babies will walk on the early side of that spectrum, and some will walk in the later range. But they all are “reaching the milestone.”
Another example would be speaking. At 18 months, we hope that a child will say a minimum of 10 words. That is the “milestone” we are looking for, or the minimum expectation. Some kids at 18 months can say upwards of 50 to 200 words. Yet the 18-month-old child who is speaking 10 words is still reaching the language milestone, even though they aren’t saying 50-plus words.
When looking at development, I encourage you to truly focus on the child in front of you. When we begin to compare our children to what other children are doing, we get into a race to reach a milestone, which can negatively impact interactions with our own children.
Say you are focused on teaching your child to speak. You want them to learn words so badly that, in your desperation, you continuously say, “Say ball!” “Say mama!” “Say dada!” You don’t pause, you don’t describe the word, you don’t associate the word with something in their environment. Instead, you try to force them to say a word simply because you want them to speak to reach the milestone. You lose sight of the actual art of teaching your child language, ironically, because you are trying so desperately to teach them language.
I often find that most of this milestone anxiety is created from social media and our circles of friends. We see a friend or “momfluencer’s” child doing something, and we ask ourselves, “Why is my child not doing that? Am I not doing enough?”
We sometimes feel that the child’s inability to reach a milestone is our fault — that we didn’t do enough, or that we didn’t engage with our child enough. But remember, each child blossoms at a different time. Each child has their own strengths. Some may walk early, some may talk early, some may self-feed early.
What’s the hurry?
But our goal as parents is not to hurry to get them there. Our goal should be to help foster an environment where they can learn these things on their own timeline.
Milestone anxiety exists because we feel we want to control our child’s story. Or maybe we feel that when they reach a milestone, it’s a sign that we did something right as parents. Or maybe we’re afraid that if they don’t reach a milestone, they’ll be labeled as “behind.”
All of those fears can take the joy out of helping your baby meet those milestones. When you’re constantly thinking about the future, how can you focus on the now?
The goal of engaging with our children is to help them reach their own potential and nobody else’s. That can happen through our own education or with the help of specialists.
Our goal is not to race our child to an imaginary finish line just because we saw another child get their first.
We want to give our kids the power and confidence to reach their milestones on their own trajectory, and sometimes it will require us to remember to give them time and patience while knowing the skills to help get them there.
But most importantly, give yourself a little grace in knowing that you are doing an amazing job helping to guide them there.
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