What is a developmental delay?

What is a developmental delay or disability, what can it mean, and what can you do?

What is a developmental delay?

Children develop and mature at different rates. A developmental delay is when a child takes longer to reach developmental milestones than other children. This could be in areas such as moving, learning, talking, or behaving.

Not all children who meet developmental milestones a little later have a developmental delay.

For some children, a delay can be temporary, and they can progress more quickly as they grow. For others, their delay may become more significant over time and can affect their learning and education.

At times a developmental delay may be a sign of certain disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy, or an intellectual disability.

What causes a developmental delay?

Developmental delays can be caused by a wide range of factors, however, sometimes the cause is not known. In Australia, 5 – 10% of children aged 0-8 have a developmental delay, and boys are more likely to be effected than girls.

Some of the causes of a developmental delay can include:

  • Complications at birth including premature birth
  • Down syndrome or other chromosomal abnormalities
  • Autism
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Fragile X syndrome or other intellectual disabilities
  • Severe medical problems after birth
  • Hearing loss
  • Child abuse or neglect
  • Brain trauma and encephalitis

Areas of a developmental delay

There are different areas of developmental delays, and children may experience one or more of these. Sometimes, a delay occurs in many or all of these areas which is called a “global developmental delay.”

Cognitive Skills – how children understand, think and learn

Communication – how children learn to speak, listen, and understand non-verbal communication

Social and emotional development – how children relate with others, develop a range of emotions and responses, and form relationships

Gross motor development – how children use their bodies move

Fine motor development – how children manipulate objects and use their hands

Behaviour – how children act and interact with people and the world around them

Self help – how children take care of their own personal needs, including dressing, bathing, toileting, eating

What do I do if I think my child has a developmental delay?

Children develop at different rates, but if you’re concerned that your child’s development appears to be delayed, make an appointment to see your GP, paediatrician, or other health care professional.

With early childhood intervention, children with a developmental delay can often improve dramatically and continue to grow and go to school with little or no extra support.