By Erin Ruggaber Howard
When the pediatrician handed me the referral, I cried. I'm not
proud of it, but I cried. Our perfect baby girl named Michalene
(Mikey), had developmental delay. At nine months, she couldn't
creep or crawl.
And I hadn't given it a second thought. My mother relayed
stories of many babies, including me, who were late crawlers. My
mother-in-law assured me the pediatrician was overreacting. Yet, my
husband and I felt the pediatrician must be seeing something we
weren't. We needed to see if physical therapy was the answer.
But physical therapy? For a baby?
Soon I was an emerging expert on Early Intervention, an Illinois
state program of low-cost, in-home therapy services for kids age
0-3. We were assigned a physical therapist, Rebekah, who showed up
at my door every other week for an hour-long session. Rebekah
taught me exercises I could use with Mikey. I passed those skills
on to my husband and parents, until Mikey was effectively
surrounded by a loving therapy team.
Rebekah taught me to look not just at what Mikey was doing, but
how she was doing it.
Mikey wouldn't reach or roll; she was afraid to be off-balance.
That's why she wasn't progressing toward crawling.
To help her embrace asymmetry, we rocked her while singing "Row
Row Row Your Boat." To help her reach across her body, we
encouraged her to grab at favorite toys. To help her crawl, she
played while kneeling at a couch cushion to strengthen her
To Mikey, it was play time, but we knew she was building
strength and coordination. She started crawling at 11 months and
stopped receiving services altogether at 16 months.
But our relationship with Early Intervention continued.
Due to prenatal complications, our third child, James, spent
seven weeks in the hospital. It was a recipe for developmental
delay and I wasted no time. I had him evaluated when he was just
two months old.
James lacked strength, so at every step we had to strengthen the
muscle groups he needed to reach each milestone-legs, arms, even
abs. He crawled at 12 months, and at 15 months, simply stood up one
day and took three steps. He stopped therapy shortly after. Once
his muscles were strong enough, the skills naturally followed.
Any parent can get carried away with comparisons, and yes, we
shouldn't overreact if our baby isn't keeping up with the baby next
When I think about the tears that welled up in that tiny exam
room, I know that they were rooted in fear.
Fear that I wasn't a good mom. Fear that Mikey wasn't "normal."
I am so glad that I pushed through those fears and didn't let them
slow me-and my kids-down.
Erin Ruggaber Howard is a mom living in Aurora.
Beth Judson knew things were going to be different with her
third child from day two.
That's when doctors determined Judson had undiagnosed
gestational diabetes that affected her daughter, Amelia. But the
diagnosis that followed, however, changed the Judsons' lives
Doctors also determined Amelia suffered a stroke in the womb
that affected a quarter of her brain, damage that likely would
cause lifelong difficulties with motor skills and speech.
While Amelia and her parents were prepared for these setbacks,
many children grow up never knowing what they're up against.
There are 540,688 children in Illinois 0-3 years old, yet only
135,172 of these children are screened for disabilities, according
to recent data provided by Easter Seals. About 55,850 of those not
screened end up with unidentified delays or disabilities.
The Judsons are thankful Amelia wasn't such a statistic. Though
living with these challenges has been difficult, Judson says that
with proper medical attention and therapy, Amelia, now 2,
continuously has been able to hit important milestones.
For example, by the time a child reaches 12-18 months, Easter
Seals' developmental milestones guidelines say she should be able
to walk on her own. Judson says Amelia reached that point with
Early on Amelia had difficulty drinking milk. Doctors eventually
told Judson her daughter would need to be on a feeding tube the
rest of her life, believing that the stroke made her incapable of
feeding herself. Judson didn't buy it-she decided to seek a second
"Instinctively, something didn't feel right," she says.
And it wasn't. After visiting the Easter Seals DuPage and the
Fox Valley Region office in Villa Park, Judson discovered her
daughter did have the capability to feed naturally. The real
culprit was acid reflux, which was cleared up in three months with
Cara Long, a parent liaison with Easter Seals, says this type of
persistence is key to keeping children on track.
"The thing I like to emphasize for parents is that they need to
go with their gut feelings," Long says. "If they feel like their
child isn't developing the way they should be, they should follow
up. If there's a voice in the back of their head calling out
concerns, they need to be empowered to seek out help."
When parents don't heed these instincts, Long says children can
fall through the cracks.
That's why she says Easter Seals is promoting its Make the First
Five Count program, focusing on identifying disabilities at an
early age to ensure maximum treatment, preventing children with
learning and health issues from entering school and falling behind
their peers, leading to further, more permanent effects.
"We want kids to be school ready," Long says. "The sooner we
provide therapy, the more impact we can have. Parents can't afford
to wait and see."
Hilary Gowins is a freelance writer living in Chicago.
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