WEIGHING IN – A few weeks ago, my son, Callum, crawled across our living room and rose to his feet. His stance was about as steady as one of those inflatable tube dancers, but my wife, Kathleen, and I shared a hopeful glance.
Surely, this was going to be the moment when Callum, who turns 18 months old on Friday, would take his first steps.
Kathleen fumbled for her phone to capture the occasion, but that wouldn’t be necessary. From the other room, our 4-year-old daughter, Ria, shouted about a snack, and Callum looked over his shoulder before quickly plopping himself back onto the floor.
In regard to Callum’s development, Kathleen and I have been looking over our shoulders, too.
That’s because at our son’s checkup at 15 months, our pediatrician expressed concern that Callum hadn’t yet taken his first steps or truly babbled his way to his first word. We were referred to early intervention specialists for an evaluation.
Immediately after our visit with the pediatrician, we began to compare Callum with the other babies we know. Our friends’ twins, who are roughly six months younger than Callum, were consistently saying “ba-ba” when they wanted a bottle and shaking their head “no” at pretty much everything their father said. (I’m teasing you, Kevin.) Kathleen also easily pulled up a video of when our daughter was Callum’s age, reminding us that Ria walked at 13 months.
Meanwhile, Callum remained his happy-go-lucky self, content to traverse the world via vigorous crawls.
But even if Callum was pleased with himself as he slapped his palms against the ground, Kathleen and I were worried. What parents wouldn’t be? I tried to remind myself that child development is so individual, and milestone markers (found here: www.health.ny.gov/publications/0527/) are more suggestions than absolutisms. Still, living in an age when technology and social media allow for instant and voluminous comparisons – and often those comparisons are against only the polished versions that people present on their Instagram feeds – it’s all too easy to see your family’s deficits.
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My instinct told me to avoid social media, that it wasn’t productive to increase my anxiety by concerning myself with how other kids appeared in the digital universe. But, in the past few days I’ve changed my mind.
“Social media is a double-edged sword,” Linda N. Stanhope, a professor of psychology at Union College, discussed with me this week. In the context of parenting, social media can provide a vital source of information and connection, she said – especially during a pandemic when in-person interactions have been few and far between.
“With social media, people are putting their best foot forward, broadcasting all the great things that their child can do. So that could become overwhelming for some parents if they have a concern [about their child’s development],” Stanhope said. “On the other hand, it could spark a concern where maybe a parent wasn’t really aware that maybe they should have a concern.”
No one wants to hear that their baby is behind, but it’s better to recognize signs early and act, rather than try to look away. That’s why social media can be a very useful tool. Still, that doesn’t mean parents should be doom scrolling or finding gospel in group chats.
“The danger is in when these outlets connect us with information that is false, dangerous or not applicable to our individual situations,” said Maria DeLucia-Evans, an association resource educator with the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Albany County, which offers several parenting programs. “Try to follow and connect through pages and sources that are reputable and rooted in professional or medical research. Keep an awareness about articles you read or advice you receive, and always touch base with your pediatrician. Every child is wonderfully unique, and you want to make sure the care you give is what your child needs, which may or may not be the answer for someone else.”
In our state, families can find help through the New York State Early Intervention Program EIP, which is part of the national Early Intervention Program. The program, which works with roughly 60,000 to 70,000 New York families per year, focuses on physical, cognitive, communication, social-emotional and/or adaptive areas of development. It provides access to everything from assistive technology and family counseling to occupational therapy, physical therapy and social work to children who are under 3 and have a confirmed disability or established developmental delay.
New York families don’t incur costs for the services because state and county funding provides reimbursement.
Troubling, though, is that families of color often face a delay in their access to the free services. Between June 2017 and June 2020, white children were referred to early intervention services at a younger age than children of most other races and ethnicities, according to DOH data released in August of last year.
For instance, the data showed that in one year white children were referred to services at 17 months on average, while non-white children were referred at 18 months or older statewide. What’s more, white children were more likely to have services initiated within 30 days of an intake evaluation, while Black children were less likely to have services initiated within that time frame, according to state data.
For instance, between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2020, 63% of white children had services initiated within 30 days of an intake evaluation compared to 43% of Black children having services start within that time frame.
Delaying services is detrimental.
“Simply put, interventions are more effective when provided earlier in a child’s life,” said DeLucia-Evans, of Cornell Cooperative Extension. “A baby’s brain is most adaptable within the first three years of their life. Early intervention can positively impact the developmental path for a child.”
That means delays in access to early intervention can result in lifelong achievement gaps.
“Brain development is happening so explosively at this age,” said Dr. Kirsten Siegenthaler, director for the Division of Family Health at DOH, who said the data can help program leaders adjust outreach strategies. “These supports and services can really help the trajectory of the child.”
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And, so, we come back to social media. In addition to simply using it as a means to collect information that can benefit your own family, I encourage you to share information alerting people to the fact that early intervention resources are available. We need to get to a place where every family not only knows about the importance of early intervention but feels comfortable seeking the services. Awareness is a vital part of that mission.
“The other thing we really try to do is reduce the stigma,” Siegenthaler said. “We would hate for parents to delay working with early intervention because they’re afraid it’s either a reflection on them as a bad parent or that somehow their child is born less than. That’s not at all the case.”
In Callum’s case, we were referred for an evaluation during which a speech language pathologist and physical therapist asked him to do things like imitate words and put blocks in a cup. My wife, who took Callum to the appointment, said she was nervous the whole time, worried when our then-16-month-old didn’t want to put pegs into a board or pull off his socks, wondering what it all might mean for Callum’s future.
After the assessment, the professionals did not refer Callum to early intervention, but they told us to bring him back if he wasn’t walking by 18 months.
With the clock ticking, worry prickled the backs of our necks. Callum had taken to pushing a toy shopping cart through the house as if he were browsing through the aisles of the grocery store, and to pushing a toy car down the sidewalk. He’d even started walking if one of us held his hand. But as soon as we let go, he would drop to his knees.
Don’t you want to walk, we begged?
Then, just last week, days before the deadline to return to the early interventionists, Callum finally did it. He got to his feet and waddled for a few short, straight-legged steps, babbling about a car the whole time. As of this week, he’s a walking machine, although he reminds me of someone trying to take steps while wearing ice skates.
Still, it’s a big relief. For now.
Because the truth is I’m already thinking back to our daughter’s speech and how she was slower to put sentences together than other toddlers we knew. But if Callum has a similar issue, my wife and I will be more than ready to check in with the doctor. I’ll probably even tweet from the exam room.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.
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