Developmental Vs. Chronological Age

One thing parents should keep in mind is that a child’s developmental age may not be the same as his/her chronological age. This may happen more often with children who are adopted as they may have lacked the stimulation to reach developmental milestones, psychological stages of development may be interrupted by a move, or the child may be busy adjusting to a new environment, schedule and parents rather than using that energy to progress in development. It is even psychologically healthy, adoption counselors say, for children to repeat some of the stages of development with their new parents. For example, an older baby may naturally be at an age to explore their environment actively, but may return to an intense focus on a parent figure that is common with a mother and newborn. Sometimes experts even encourage this, for example suggesting that parents, while providing opportunities for age-appropriate development, might swaddle an older baby for a few minutes a day of holding and eye contact, or sometimes feed a young toddler who is physically capable of feeding himself.

At other times emotional adjustment and family bonding simply take priority over age-appropriate expectations. I am well aware that it is not optimal for preschoolers to use a pacifier, for example, but allowing my daughter to have some control and soothe herself will be worth the eventual orthodontia—which I don’t think we have a prayer of avoiding anyway. Her cries when we tried to remove the pacifier at a younger age were not cries of protest, but cries of one truly panicked and bereft. Similarly, sometimes experts recommend waiting until the child has been in the home for six months to start therapy or medical interventions that can be delayed for that long. Of course this will vary depending on the situation. Certainly learning to communicate will help a child adjust, some issues need immediate attention, and some delays are more easily remediated early. But the ideal is to focus on emotional attachment and development in the first six months. It may be appropriate to hold off on interventions like occupational therapy or intensive tutoring.

Sometimes differences in milestone achievement among children adopted internationally reflect cultural practices rather than physical or psychological issues. My daughters were carried on their foster mother’s backs most of the time. This was very good for their emotional development, but they sat and walked later than American babies who are put down for “tummy time” and exercise. Similarly, I was told that my daughter might need occupational therapy because she did not grasp with a thumb-finger grasp. However, it turned out that she was, at age one, being given only formula, cereal and a few tablespoons of pureed food. A couple weeks’ exposure to Cheerios and she was using her thumb just fine!

Sometimes it can be easy to think of kids who don’t meet typical milestones as being younger than they are. We thought of my daughter Meg, who arrived just before her first birthday, as a baby. She was eating mostly from a bottle, not walking, had no hair, weighed 15 pounds, and of course didn’t respond to our English. Two months after she arrived, I put traditional white baby shoes on her and she began to squawk. I thought perhaps I’d laced them too tightly. But she wriggled off my lap, crawled to the closet, picked up a pair of tennis shoes with sparkly stars on them that had recently been passed on from a cousin, and banged them against her feet insistently. That was one moment when I realized we had not adopted a baby, but a toddler who just needed more English!

See these related blogs:

Is My Child Developing Properly?

Your Child’s Developmental Milestones: A Guide for Parents

Adoption Transitions #9 Toddler Adoption

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About Pam Connell

Pam Connell is a mother of three by both birth and adoption. She has worked in education, child care, social services, ministry and journalism. She resides near Seattle with her husband Charles and their three children. Pam is currently primarily a Stay-at-Home-Mom to Patrick, age 8, who was born to her; Meg, age 6, and Regina, age 3, who are biological half-sisters adopted from Korea. She also teaches preschoolers twice a week and does some writing. Her activities include volunteer work at school, church, Cub Scouts and a local Birth to Three Early Intervention Program. Her hobbies include reading, writing, travel, camping, walking in the woods, swimming and scrapbooking. Pam is a graduate of Seattle University and Gonzaga University. Her fields of study included journalism, religious education/pastoral ministry, political science and management. She served as a writer and editor of the college weekly newspaper and has been Program Coordinator of a Family Resource Center and Family Literacy Program, Volunteer Coordinator at a church, Religion Teacher, Preschool Teacher, Youth Ministry Coordinator, Camp Counselor and Nanny. Pam is an avid reader and continuing student in the areas of education, child development, adoption and public policy. She is eager to share her experiences as a mother by birth and by international adoption, as a mother of three kids of different learning styles and personalities, as a mother of kids of different races, and most of all as a mom of three wonderful kids!