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Lagging Behind: Experts report signs of developmental delays in children during pandemic

Child reading a book
Posted at 7:35 PM, Feb 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-24 21:01:18-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Like most 2-year-olds, Thorin Zimmerman loves playing with his toys and watching cartoons on his tablet.

But over the past year, his parents began to wonder if he is indeed developing at the same speed as his peers.

"By the time he was 18 months, he wasn't saying much more than 'mama' and 'dada,'" said Thorin's mother Alyssa. "That’s when we knew something was a little bit off."

Virtually his entire life has been spent in a pandemic, meaning the family hasn't ventured outside to playgroups, storytime at the library or outings with other children.

Due to fears of complications for Thorin and other high-risk family members, the Zimmermans have stayed locked down.

That means they weren't around other families to make comparisons that could highlight whether Thorin was on track or slightly behind.

"Being a first-time parent, how do you know if your child is simply not meeting milestones? Or if there is something more going on that could be either brought by the pandemic, or something else such as autism?" Alyssa said.

Those questions led the Zimmermans to seek help, including speech therapy and autism screenings.

Although they're hopeful they're on the right track, Alyssa can't help but feel sad thinking of the moments she missed out on with other moms, connections that might have helped her navigate questions with her own son.

"It’s been really hard because as a parent, of course I never planned to be just a stay-at-home mom by myself," Alyssa said. "I planned to be with other stay-at-home moms and have a playgroup for Thorin to be a part of."

The sense of loss and isolation is something Dr. Jumesha Wade is seeing with other parents she assists.

As the executive director for Start at Zero, an early learning center in Kansas City, she says this represents a real problem posed by the pandemic.

"So, not only is it important for kids to spend time with other kids, but it’s important for parents to spend time with other families and kids," Wade said.

Wade says protecting one's family is a priority and parents shouldn't fault themselves for taking steps to stay safe.

Although, she admits a lack of early socialization seems to be causing some developmental delays in young children, pointing to a recent article in JAMA Pediatrics.

"One of the things they found was that children are showing delays at six months for fine motor, gross motor and personal-social," Wade said.

Wade says the main delays found in this article and the ones being seen with local clients, like communication delays.

Nevertheless, Wade says even if a child is behind, there are steps parents can take.

"I think starting with a screening, and that’s why that’s kind of the first entry point of even determining if anything is going on," Wade said.

She points out anyone can contact Start at Zero to have their child screened.

For those in Jackson County, they can help you get little ones up to speed through home and virtual visits.

Anyone living outside of the area can be put in contact with organizations in their community.

For the Zimmermans, finding resources like these has been a lifeline.

"Thorin didn’t know how to sign before, and now he knows how to do a couple of different signs," Alyssa said. "He’s still not quite past the babbling stage, but now there are different times where he said, 'I love you mama,' which of course as a mom just put that special little print on your heart."

Alyssa says above all, she wants other parents to know they're not alone if they've found themselves struggling during the pandemic.

As for tracking a child's development, here's a link to the CDC's milestone tracker app.

To get a child screened at Start at Zero, dial 816-600-4932 or visit the website here.

One other tip Wade passes along to parents is to not discount "virtual" playgroups, allowing children to see other children over Zoom.

Also, the more parents talk to their children, the more they can help their development.

Wade says to try to make it a point to describe to your baby what you're doing, even if it's a mundane task such as making dinner.

Just hearing your voice and observing your facial expressions can serve as a learning tool for your little one.