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Among the factors that can prevent infants from achieving milestones are genetic defects, toxic influences during pregnancy, birth complications and premature birth, perceptual problems that remain unnoticed, malnutrition, lack of sleep, and lack of social stimulation. The key to negotiating these barriers is parental support.
Barriers to achieving baby milestones
Some babies may show genetic defects that lead to a deformation of their brain or body in the womb. The risk of such defects increases with the age of the mother and the father.
Pregnancy is the most vulnerable development stage, especially early on. When mothers suffer from certain infections (such as measles), or when they consume alcohol, cigarettes, other drugs, or hormones, fetal development can suffer. The same holds true if mothers are exposed to increased stress or when the functionality of the placenta is impaired.
Infants who are born prematurely or who experienced birth complications also carry an increased risk for abnormal developmental later in life.
In early infancy, many things may prevent the child from achieving further milestones. Young infants need to develop a stable biological rhythm, and this requires the support of caregivers who feed the them, change nappies/diapers, put them to sleep, keep their body temperature stable and provide protection. If any of these basic needs is not met, the baby may become ill and/or fail to reach the next milestone in different areas of development.
If impaired perception goes unnoticed, other domains of development may also fall behind, including fine motor development, cognition, language or social development.
Finally, positive face-to-face interactions are crucial to achieve normal milestones in cognition, language, social, self-regulation and emotional development. Infants deprived of adequate social stimulation often show abnormal behavior later in life.
How parents help the baby achieve milestones normally
Caregiving is a challenging but rewarding experience. To help a baby achieve normal milestones, adults should remain curious to learn about early development every day, observe their child carefully, and try to be responsive, thus showing sensitive caregiving.
All human adults have intuitive parenting skills. Without previous training, we approach babies who cry, pick them up and rock them gently, seek eye-to-eye contact, smile when looking at them and speak slowly, with a high and melodic voice. Despite these talents, providing good infant care has become challenging. Infants need to compete with work, mobile phones, computers, and multiple other distractions when trying to get their caregivers’ attention.
Apart from living and eating healthily during pregnancy, supporting an infant requires the willingness to interact with children, provide adequate care and cognitive or social stimulation, and help them regulate their own emotions. When children reach the toddler milestones, parents should be patient in explaining rules, answering questions and improving perspective taking as well as social cooperation.
With regard to motor development, a great challenge for parents is to find the right balance between allowing children to try new movements (such as climbing) and protecting them from getting hurt.
Considering perceptual development, it is important not to overlook potential difficulties in any domain. For example, if a child is cross-eyed for more than six weeks during a sensitive period of visual development (between four and nine months) and this remains unnoticed, spatial vision will remain impaired throughout the child’s later life. In terms of cognitive and language development, parents should help children express questions verbally and find answers. A child who has a vocabulary of less than 50 words by the age of 24 months carries double the risk of being language impaired permanently.
Regarding social development, caregivers introduce the child to cultural achievements and promote achievement of social understanding milestones. If caregivers do not treat children well and neglect their social needs, this may lead to slower cognitive development, less social understanding and behavioral difficulties later in life.
Finally, with respect to self-regulation and emotional development, parents serve as co-regulators when the child is in a state of imbalance. Parents can help find words for the child’s experiences and emotions, such as fear, anger or frustration. This is a necessary prerequisite for children’s developing ability to regulate their own emotions.