New Guidelines Aim to Better Define Developmental Milestones

Caleb Rans, PharmD

February 14, 2022

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued revised milestone guidelines for their developmental surveillance campaign, Learn the Signs, Act Early (LTSAE).

The new guidelines, published in Pediatrics, were drafted in "easy-to-understand" language and identify the behaviors that 75% or more of children should exhibit at certain ages based on developmental resources, existing data, and clinician experience. The previous milestone checklists, developed in 2004, used 50th percentile or average-age milestones.

The CDC, in collaboration with the AAP, convened a group of eight subject matter experts in various fields of child development, including a developmental pediatrician and researcher from Kennedy Krieger Institute, to develop new and clearer guidelines.

"The goals of the group were to identify evidence-informed milestones to include in CDC checklists, clarify when most children can be expected to reach a milestone (to discourage a wait-and-see approach), and support clinical judgment regarding screening between recommended ages," wrote lead author Jennifer M. Zubler, MD, of the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities in Atlanta, and colleagues.

Key Changes

The experts established 11 criteria for CDC surveillance milestones and tools, including milestones most children (75% or more) would be expected to reach by defined health supervision visit ages and those that are easily recognized in natural settings.

Criteria for developmental milestones and surveillance tools:

  • Milestones are included at the age most (≥75%) children would be expected to demonstrate the milestone.

  • Eliminate "warning signs."

  • Are easy for families of different social, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds to observe and use.

  • Are able to be answered with yes, not yet, or not sure.

  • Use plain language, avoiding vague terms like may, can, and begins.

  • Are organized in developmental domains.

  • Show progression of skills with age, when possible.

  • Milestones are not repeated across checklists.

  • Include open-ended questions.

  • Include information for developmental promotion.

  • Include information on how to act early if there are concerns.

The previous guidelines were critiqued by some clinicians as being "not helpful to individual families who had concerns about their child's development," and in some cases, led to delays in diagnoses as decision-makers opted for a "wait-and-see approach."

"The earlier a child is identified with a developmental delay the better, as treatment as well as learning interventions can begin," Paul Lipkin, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, said in an accompanying press release. "Revising the guidelines with expertise and data from clinicians in the field accomplishes these goals."

Additional changes included new checklists for children between the ages of 15 and 30 months, additional social and emotional milestones, as well as the removal of complex language and duplicate milestones. The experts also developed new, open-ended questions to aid discussions with families.

"Review of a child's development with these milestones opens up a continuous dialogue between a parent and the health care provider about their child's present and future development," said Lipkin.

Originally pioneered in 2005, the LTSAE awareness campaign provides free resources to clinicians and families to support early detection of children with developmental delays and disabilities. After the new guidelines were drafted, they were presented to parents of various racial groups, income levels, and educational backgrounds to confirm ease of use and understandability.

"These criteria and revised checklists can be used to support developmental surveillance, clinical judgment regarding additional developmental screening, and research in developmental surveillance processes," wrote Zubler.

Expert Perspective

"These new guidelines will allow us to catch more children with developmental delays as they raise the threshold to 75% of children achieving those milestones at that particular age," Karalyn Kinsella, MD, a pediatrician in Cheshire, Conn., said in an interview.

Kinsella added that the new guidelines simplify the milestones and reduce redundancy across different developmental domains. "Most importantly, it gave me the opportunity to see just how great the CDC milestone tracker app is — I think parents would really like it."

This project was supported by the CDC and Prevention of the Department of Health & Human Services. One author is a developer of the Ages & Stages Questionnaires and receives royalties from Brookes Publishing, the company that publishes this tool; the other authors have indicated they have no relevant conflicts of interest to disclose.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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