It's your three year old's birthday and he's having a party with his day care friends. You watch as the other three year olds ask for more cake and answer questions about what they're wearing.
But your child doesn't say much, and what he does say is difficult to understand. He also isn't really kicking the ball, using the slide or riding his new tricycle as well as the other kids.
You always thought he was quiet or shy. But is there something more happening? Is his behaviour normal? How concerned should you be?
Delays in early child development are common. In Australia, more than one in five children starting school are behind where they should be in how they think, communicate, move, socialise or manage their emotions.
Our recently published research looked at how we begin to notice delays in young children – what delays look like and what parents need to notice.
A niggle or an 'aha' moment?
Noticing delays in a child's development is not always an obvious "aha" moment, though it can be.
Big "aha" moments are more likely when there is a sudden change in a child. There could be something specific they should be doing but are not, such as responding to their name. Or there could be unexplained behaviours, like frequent temper tantrums sparked by seemingly nothing that take your child a long time to calm down from.
But frequently a parent notices gradually – a niggle that grows over time. This can be a gut feeling or intuition that something isn't quite right. These niggles can be confusing and make you second-guess yourself – "maybe it's nothing, but …". Yet these niggles are compelling enough to make you worry.
Our research found both "aha" moments and niggles were often signs of real developmental delays. And generally knowing about child development and comparing your child to others of a similar age led parents to notice something wasn't quite right.
Knowing what normal looks like and remembering that normal is a range helps us to begin to identify when a child is developing differently. For example, knowing three-year olds use sentences of three to five words can help to understand their language development.
But where do we get this knowledge from? While social media and parenting sites have their place, beware the rabbit hole of conflicting and even judgemental information online.
Stick to sources like the Raising Children Network website, which provides best-practice, well-researched information across different ages and areas of development.
Comparing with other kids
Comparing your child's development with other children's can also help. For example, if most other children at the party speak in sentences while your child is using single words and gestures, it is easier to pick up on the difference.
However, rather than relying on signs from a single party, seeing your child with a variety of other children as well as in different settings is best. This helps gain a full picture of your child.
Remember all children develop differently and being a little behind does not necessarily equal delay. But this may flag something to watch.
Play also provides a chance to compare your child with others. This could be watching how your child plays with siblings, neighbours or friends' children at the park or at playgroup.
Now, I'm concerned. What should I do?
So if you would like a little more information or to talk to someone about your child, what can you do? If you are in Australia, maternal and child health services across each state and territory offer a schedule of appointments to check in with your child's health and development.
For example, Western Australia operates under the Purple Book scheme and provide checks at eight weeks, four months, 12 months, two years, and when your child enters school.
You can also make appointments outside these set times by contacting your local child health centre if you have concerns; there is no need to wait until your child hits one of these ages.
Child health centres also often offer drop-in sessions as well as group sessions for parenting support and advice.
So trust those niggles, watch out for "aha" moments, learn how children develop and embrace opportunities to see your child with others. Even if you are a little uncertain, talk to someone. Sharing your concerns with someone is never a waste of anyone's time – because maybe it's nothing, but what if it's not?
More information about child development is also available on the Raising Children Network website.