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Developmental Disorders in Babies and Toddlers: What Are the Warning Signs?

Mental Health

January 27, 2023
Developmental Disorders in Babies and Toddlers

Certain medical conditions can affect the rate at which your baby or toddler grows, whether physically or mentally. These developmental disorders come in many forms — some may significantly affect your child’s life, while others may not have a big impact.

It’s important to communicate with your child’s doctor about any potential warning signs you see that could signal a developmental delay. Recognizing issues early may help your baby or toddler get any necessary treatments and make it easier for you and your family to support your child.

Developmental Disorders: The Basics

Developmental disorders include conditions that affect various parts of a person’s life, including:

  • Physical abilities
  • Emotional regulation
  • Language skills
  • Learning abilities
  • Behavior
  • Social skills

These disorders are common during a child’s early years. They have the potential to develop in up to one out of four children aged five or under.

Meeting Developmental Milestones

Doctors measure your child’s progress and look for signs of potential health problems using developmental milestones. These milestones are specific skills related to physical, thinking, or social abilities.

Typically, each milestone happens around a certain age. If your baby or toddler reaches a milestone later than average, it may indicate a developmental disorder. However, it is important to remember that each child develops at different rates, and there is a very wide range of what is considered “normal.”

Examples of developmental milestones at different ages include:

  • Two months — Your baby often appears happy when they look at you, responds when there is a loud sound nearby, and holds their head up when lying on their stomach.
  • Four months — Your infant may try to make noises or smile to get your attention, hold toys, and put their hands in their mouth.
  • Six months — Your baby may squeal, make sounds back and forth with you, reach out for interesting things, and roll over while lying down.
  • Nine months — Your child could appear shy around unfamiliar people, start making facial expressions to show their emotions, respond to their name, bang things together, or sit up.
  • Twelve months — Your one-year-old may wave goodbye, look for things when you hide them, and stand or walk with support.
  • Eighteen months — Your toddler may start pointing to things, try to speak a couple of simple words, walk without support, and eat with their fingers.
  • Two years — Your child may seem to notice when another person is upset, start learning body parts, use simple knobs or switches, or run.
  • Three years — Your toddler may start playing with other children, having simple conversations, using a fork, or putting on a jacket without help.

Remember that these are general guidelines. About three out of four children can perform these tasks at the associated ages, while the remaining one out of four do not.

If your baby reaches a milestone at a different point in time, that does not necessarily mean that they have a developmental disorder. Every child is different. However, if your baby or toddler seems to reach milestones later than is typical, it may be worth mentioning to your pediatrician to see if there is cause for concern.

Tracking Your Child’s Milestones

You may want to use a tool to track your baby’s developmental milestones as they occur. This could help you initiate a conversation with your doctor if you think your child isn’t reaching the milestones at the right times.

Ask your doctor about using a milestone checklist to help you keep track of key activities. Additionally, several smartphone apps can assist you in tracking milestones.

Types of Developmental Disorders and Warning Signs

Developmental disorders can cause your child to miss different developmental milestones. You may want to ask your pediatrician to evaluate your baby or toddler for a specific disorder based on the signs and symptoms you notice.

The following are some developmental disorders that occur in babies and toddlers. Many of these conditions have overlapping sets of symptoms, so it’s a good idea to work with your pediatrician to determine what type of disorder your child may be dealing with.


Developmental Disorders in Babies and Toddlers

Children, including young children, can experience anxiety. While most children have certain things that they feel afraid of, these worries shouldn’t get in the way of going to school, playing, or sleeping. Fears also typically decrease with age.

Anxiety symptoms in your child may include:

  • Having an extreme reaction to being away from their parents
  • Not wanting to be around other people, especially strangers
  • Intense fear about something bad occurring
  • Feelings of intense fear about a certain object, animal, event, or other factors
  • Panic attacks, in which your child struggles to breathe, gets sweaty, feels dizzy, or has a pounding heartbeat


Children who feel unusually sad or don’t display many emotions may be struggling with depression.

Warning signs of depression in children could include:

  • Sadness
  • Crankiness
  • Appetite changes
  • Unusual tiredness
  • Sleeping for shorter or longer amounts of time than usual
  • Trouble focusing
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Doing things that hurt themselves

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Children with ADHD often move around a lot, have trouble focusing, lack self-control, or some combination of the above.

Your child may be dealing with ADHD if they show symptoms like:

  • Trouble paying attention, including while playing or talking to you
  • Being distracted by things in the environment or random thoughts
  • Not listening to you when you are speaking to them
  • Frequently fidgeting
  • Always being active and on the go
  • Constantly trying to get up and run around when they’re supposed to say seated
  • Talking a lot
  • Interrupting others who are talking or playing
  • Having trouble staying quiet when playing


Developmental Disorders in Babies and Toddlers

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may have behaviors or communication habits that are a little different from those seen in other children. They may develop, learn, and grow in non-typical ways.

Early signs of autism in young children include:

  • Having trouble making eye contact
  • Not displaying facial expressions to convey emotions
  • Avoiding gestures like waving or pointing
  • An inability to recognize their name
  • Not seeming interested in playing or interacting with other children
  • Repeating the same words many times
  • Always playing with or lining up objects in the same way
  • Having trouble adapting to new changes or routines
  • Experiencing strong reactions to certain smells, tastes, or feels

Intellectual Disabilities

Intellectual disabilities affect the way a child thinks, learns, solves problems, interacts with other people, or performs everyday skills.

Some of these conditions are caused by changes in the brain, spinal cord, or nerves. They include genetic disorders such as Down syndrome or Fragile X syndrome as well as conditions like cerebral palsy that are caused by damage to the brain or changes in brain development.

Intellectual disabilities also include things like blindness, deafness, or other conditions that affect the senses.

In some cases, intellectual disabilities may not cause symptoms immediately. A baby may initially hit all the typical milestones but later start losing some of the abilities they previously had.

Intellectual disabilities could lead to:

  • Trouble speaking
  • Memory problems
  • Difficulties in problem-solving skills
  • A lack of understanding of how to behave socially
  • Delays in when your child does certain physical activities such as sitting up or walking

Learning Disabilities

These disorders affect the way a child thinks or processes information. Although these conditions aren’t often diagnosed until a child starts school, learning disorders could affect the way your toddler communicates.

A common type of learning disability is dyslexia. This makes it harder for a child to read or recognize words. Dysgraphia is a learning disability that leads to difficulties writing or making letters. Toddlers with other forms of learning disabilities may have trouble speaking or understanding language in different ways.

Your child may have a learning disability if they show symptoms such as:

  • Not speaking very well for their age (for example, they can’t pronounce words correctly or can speak words but not sentences)
  • Appearing to have trouble saying what they’re thinking
  • Difficulties grasping what different words mean
  • Having trouble remembering things
  • Being unable to focus
  • Experiencing difficulties following directions
Developmental Disorders in Babies and Toddlers

Diagnosis: How Do You Know When There’s a Problem?

If you’re concerned about your baby or toddler’s development, the first step is talking to your pediatrician. Tell the doctor about any instances in which you think your child isn’t moving, behaving, talking, or playing like other kids their age.

If there is a problem, your pediatrician may recommend that you take your baby or toddler to a specialist who can diagnose and treat specific types of developmental disorders.

You may also want to ask your pediatrician about getting developmental screening for your child. These screenings can indicate potential areas in which your child is not developing as quickly as expected. Developmental screenings don’t diagnose specific disorders, but they may indicate if additional testing may be a good idea.

You can get developmental screening from your child’s doctor during a regular visit. Alternatively, you can get a free screening through the Easterseals website and take the results with you to your child’s next pediatrician appointment.

Treating Developmental Disorders

There are many types of treatments and support systems that help children with developmental disabilities. The type of treatment that is best for your child varies based on what condition they have and how it impacts their life.

Healthcare Professionals and Treatments

If your child has a developmental disorder, your usual pediatrician may not be able to provide enough support. Doctors called developmental pediatricians specialize in diagnosing and treating children who are developing at their own pace. You may want to ask your doctor for a referral to one of these specialists.

Other types of healthcare providers also specialize in certain areas of childhood development.

A child psychologist evaluates and treats disorders that affect the mind, such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, and autism. A child psychiatrist specializes in prescribing medication to help with these conditions. Additionally, a therapist or other mental health provider can provide therapy that teaches your child to think more positively, fight their fears, or develop mental or emotional skills.

Speech therapists can treat conditions that affect your child’s ability to speak or swallow. They can help your child better understand and pronounce words or learn to use other forms of communication such as sign language.

Physical therapists help with movement. If your child’s developmental disorder causes physical symptoms such as bone or muscle problems, a physical therapist may be able to help your child build up strength, improve motor skills, move more efficiently, or be more coordinated.

Healthcare providers can also work with parents. They can help them better understand their child’s condition, teach parents how to work with their children to build new skills, or help parents cope.

Accessing Support Services

Your baby or toddler may be eligible for services such as special education or physical therapy that support their development. You can look into these services before they start school and before you get a formal diagnosis from a doctor.

To find out whether there are services that could help your child, you need to get an evaluation. This is sometimes called Child Find.

To get an evaluation for children under the age of three, contact your local early intervention program. When you get in touch, ask for an evaluation for early intervention services.

For children three years old and older, contact a nearby public elementary school or your local school district’s special education director. They should be able to help you access evaluations and services.

Recognizing the Warning Signs

It’s important to work with your pediatrician to look for signs of developmental disorders. They may be able to reassure you that there aren’t any problems — many children don’t hit their milestones at the predicted times but don’t have a developmental disorder. Every child is different.

Your doctor may also identify potential problems that they want to further evaluate. Although it may be scary to think that your child has a developmental disorder, catching these conditions early is good. It allows you to find treatments for your child and learn how to best support their needs. An early diagnosis may minimize symptoms later on and help your child live a happier life.

Articles authored by Dr. Connor are intended to facilitate awareness about health and wellness matters generally and are not a substitute for professional medical attention or advice from your own healthcare practitioner, which is dependent on your detailed personal medical condition and history. You should always speak with your own qualified healthcare practitioner about any information in any articles you may read here before choosing to act or not act upon such information.
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