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What is Developmental Screening?

By Amanda R. Bell
Updated May 17, 2024
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Developmental screening is a tool used by health care professionals to determine whether a child requires an assessment for any developmental delays based on predetermined milestones. Screening is usually handled by questioning parents and observing a child and most often at health checkups; many areas also offer free developmental screenings or one can be requested by parents. A developmental screening is not considered a diagnostic tool; it is simply meant to determine whether further testing is needed for any number of issues.

From birth to kindergarten, most children attend well-baby or well-child checkups at different ages. Developmental screening typically begins when a child is four months old and continues until he or she is school-aged. Through research, medical professionals have determined different milestones that children reach by a certain age on average. The milestones are usually categorized in terms of gross motor skills, fine motor skills, language, problem solving, and social skills.

Pediatricians often ask parents to fill out a questionnaire before a checkup. Each packet lists milestones that the average child of the same age tends to meet, and a parent marks which ones his or her child has accomplished. The paperwork is previewed by the pediatrician before the visit; the doctor then observes the child during the visit and asks the parent questions concerning the checklist.

While all children develop at a different rate, whether a child meets the milestones for his or her age group is the most common developmental screening tool. In general, further testing is usually reserved for a child who has not met any milestones or who is severely lagging in many areas. In general, a child who is behind in one area but on target or advanced in others is seldom usually flagged in a developmental screening. Children who are behind in several areas at once may require more testing.

If parents are concerned about their child's development in between appointments, developmental screenings may also be performed by other health care professionals. Communities often provide free screenings for delays; these are conducted in the same manner as well-baby checkup developmental screening. Studies have found that the combination of reviewing milestones, observing the child, and talking with the parents can determine if further assessment is needed in up to 80% of cases.

Developmental screening is not considered a diagnosis. It is only meant to determine whether a more in-depth assessment is needed for issues such as intellectual disabilities, language delays,or physical delays. These screenings can also determine if a child should have an assessment for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit disorder (ADD), or attention hyperactivity disorder (AHD). If a flag is raised on a developmental screening test, a child is often referred to a specialist depending on what delay is suspected. In most cases, the earlier a delay is detected and treatment starts, the better the outcome will be for the child.

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