The American Academy of Pediatrics’ recent decision to move away from the “wait and see” philosophy to a more proactive intervention when dealing with childhood obesity got me reflecting on how “wait and see” is still used in many other aspects of children’s development.
As a speech therapist and a mother of a child who was at risk for developmental delays, I had personal experience with this approach. My son was born six weeks early, which can be a real cause for concern for many parents, including myself. We had noticed that he seemed to be a little behind in developing grasping skills, so we decided to raise our concerns during his 2-month check-up at the pediatrician. She told us to “wait and see,” as some kids gain the skill a little later than others. While the parent in me was reassured, the speech-language pathologist in me was less so. Medical professionals typically view clients or patients through the lens of their profession, based on their training. A speech-language pathologist often looks at things from a speech-language perspective, a physical therapist from a physical perspective, and a pediatrician from a pediatric perspective. Since I was concerned about my son’s physical development, I felt more comfortable getting an opinion from an occupational therapist while still valuing what the pediatrician said. Thankfully, my son is meeting all his milestones, but this may be because I went against the medical recommendation to “wait and see.”
The “wait and see” method is still prevalent. Recently, I had an intake conversation with a parent inquiring about my speech services. The parent was concerned about her 6-year-old son, who had been told to “wait and see” during his check-ups at both 4 and 5 years old. Her son is now severely impacted by his stutter and no longer wants to go to school. Another parent contacted me regarding language services for her 3-year-old daughter, who was not talking at the age of 2. The pediatrician recommended she “wait and see.” Now, at three years old, her vocabulary consists of only three words.
Now, let’s consider an entirely different scenario. If you discovered a small crack in your ceiling and contacted a contractor, what would you do if they told you to “wait and see” whether it may flood or be fine? There is a risk, and though we may not know the extent of it, the risk exists nonetheless. Is it prudent to wait?
If the child who stutters had gone to a speech-language pathologist when he was 4, he may not be as severely impacted by his stutter and could now be enjoying a more comfortable life in school. If the 2-year-old had received speech therapy earlier, she could have developed a larger vocabulary and might be on par with her peers, or at least not as far behind as she is now. Early intervention programs have been shown to yield many benefits, including academic achievement and behavior.
The “wait and see” method is very reassuring to parents because, from a medical professional’s point of view, it is true that many children develop skills at a slower rate, and some children outgrow their stutter. It gives parents the feeling that nothing is wrong. However, this raises the simple question: “Is there any harm in providing services to your child if they do not really need it?” But the real question is: “What is the harm in delaying services if they need them?”
I will never know whether occupational therapy helped my son with grasping or whether he simply needed more time to achieve the skill on his own. What I do know is that he did finally achieve the skill, and that is the most important thing.
Warning signs a child may need early Intervention for speech:
- Not smiling by three months old
- Not babbling by seven months old
- Not understanding what others say by 15 months old
- Not putting two words together by 1.5 to 2 years of age
- Saying fewer than 100 words by 24 months old
- Not saying the sounds b, p, m, h, and w by 1 to 2 years of age
- Having trouble playing with other children by 2 to 3 years of age
- Repeating the first sound in a word (e.g., “b-b-b-b-ball” for “ball”)
- Prolonging sounds in a word (e.g., “rrrrreally” for “really”)
- Having a hoarse, scratchy, or breathy voice
- Coughing frequently following swallowing food/liquid
- Extreme pickiness with food preferences
In conclusion, the “wait and see” method may indeed be appropriate for some children, but we cannot predict which children need therapy and which ones may simply be a little slower to achieve skills. We can take the risk, or we can err on the side of caution. Think again about that crack in the ceiling and decide if you would rather fix it before the drip turns into a flood.
Stephanie Jeret is a speech pathologist.