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Developmental delay

Developmental delay means a child doesn't reach one or more developmental milestones by the expected age.

A child with developmental delay will still progress but at a different rate to other children. Sometimes, delays become more obvious as the child gets older and has to learn more complex skills.

A child can be delayed in any of four areas of development. They are:

If a child has been born prematurely, had a long illness or experienced significant family stress, they may have an obvious developmental delay for a while. But a continuing delay can suggest there is a more complex reason for the delay and they may need continuing support. In this case, they need to be assessed to figure out what they're having difficulty with, how serious it is and what effect it's having on their life.

Sometimes a child's development is delayed because of another condition such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, or autism spectrum disorder. Intellectual disability is a common cause. Usually, the term developmental delay is used until another formal diagnosis is made.

Intellectual disability

An intellectual disability is a lifelong condition that affects a child's learning, behaviour, social and practical skills. A child with an intellectual disability takes longer to learn skills than other children. A severe disability is likely to become obvious in the first two years of their life, while a milder disability may not be obvious until a child is 3 or 4, or even until they enter school.

Symptoms of developmental delay

If your child has a developmental delay, you may notice they:

Diagnosing a developmental delay

If you think your child may have a developmental delay, talk to your GP, Well Child nurse or early childhood teacher. They will ask questions about your child’s history and behaviour and will watch your child playing. They will also examine your child to check their general health and what they can and cannot do. Your GP may refer your child for hearing and vision checks.

If your GP thinks your child may have a developmental delay, they will refer you to a child development specialist or paediatrician (specialist children's doctor).

A development specialist or paediatrician will again ask about your child’s history and behaviour, watch your child and do some neurological (nerve and brain) examinations. They may also ask for some further tests.

They will diagnose your child after watching how they behave in different situations and listening to what you have noticed. They may also speak to your child's teachers and other health professionals, such as a psychologist, speech-language therapist and occupational therapist, if they're involved.

If your child is very young, their diagnosis may change as they get older.

Helping your child with a developmental delay

To help your child, recognise that they may need more time and practice to learn certain skills. Your child will have their own unique strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. You can work with their health professionals and their teachers to make sure they achieve their potential.

There are community child development support services that can help. Your GP or child's school may also know what services are available for you and your child.

Long-term effects of development delay

Developmental delay varies a lot. As your child grows, their specific needs and strengths will become much clearer. Some children need a lot of support during their school years then use the skills they have used and available resources to live independent lives as adults. Other people may need continued support throughout their lives.

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Written by a private occupational therapist, Canterbury. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Page created August 2021.


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Review key: HICDG-40335