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Risk Factors and Early Warning Signs

Knowing the early warning signs and risk factors for childhood disabilities and delays is key to getting the early help your child may need. Early intervention is proven to be effective in helping children with special needs – either to overcome delays or help set them up for future success.

Boy wearing cape lifting teddy bear

Children develop at different rates and in different ways. These variances may be related to factors like health, personality, temperament, and/or experiences. Since the first five years of development are so critical, the sooner a concern is identified, the sooner your child can benefit from specialized services to support growth and development.

If you ever have any concerns about your child’s development, or if something just seems a little off, don’t hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician – even if no issues were identified at your child’s last appointment. And be sure to communicate your concerns with your child’s caregiver – whether it’s a family member, a nanny, or a child care program.

Most developmental disabilities are thought to be caused by a mix of factors. Some of these factors may include:

  • Prematurity or low birth weight.

  • Prenatal or environmental exposure to drugs, alcohol, or tobacco.

  • Poor nutrition (lack of nutritious foods, vitamins, proteins, or iron in diet, etc.) or difficulty eating.

  • Exposure to high levels of environmental toxins by the mother or child (such as lead).

  • Infections in the mother during pregnancy or baby early in life.

  • Trauma and stress.

Trauma, Stress, and Special Needs

Children may face stressful, negative life experiences that actually affect how their brains develop. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) refer to specific, emotionally traumatic life events. These can include early medical complications or delays leading to medical procedures, extended hospital stays, living with pain, discrimination, and more. Researchers have found that the more ACEs experienced by a child, the more likely that child may face medical and mental health issues throughout life. In other words, trauma and stress in a child’s life can lead to medical and mental health conditions. Stress has also been found to change the shape and size of an individual’s brain and the connections between the brain cells. Stress affects development, behavior, lives and learning. In other words, experiencing stress at an early age, especially numerous negative life events, can have a negative impact on a child’s development.

Signs of Development Delays

Children with special needs can have differences in the way they develop and act. As your child grows, watch for these early signs:

Up to 6 months

  • Doesn’t coo or smile

  • Doesn’t react to loud noises or turn to follow sounds and voices   

  • Has difficulty holding head up by age three months

  • Has difficulty following objects or people with their eyes

  • Arms or legs are stiff, or posture is floppy or limp

6 months to 1 year

  • Has trouble figuring out simple things like finding an object after seeing it be hidden

  • Has problems responding when being called from across the room, even when it involves something interesting

  • Has difficulty sitting, standing up, reaching for objects, or picking up objects, and doesn’t play games like peek-a-boo

  • Hasn’t started to say simple words like “mama” or “dada" by age one

  • Repeats behavior that could hurt, like self-biting or banging the head

Check out the Milestones page for more information. 

QUICK TIP: Did you know that your child's brain is at its most flexible from birth to age five, making it a prime window for learning? That's why it's so important to get your child the help and resources needed if there is a suspected or diagnosed disability. Earlier intervention can result in better outcomes for your child. Don't wait – ask your child’s pediatrician about any concerns you have and options for help.

First 5 California
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First 5 California
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