Pediatricians usually expect children to reach certain physical, mental, and emotional markers at certain stages of growth, until about age five. When a child does not meet developmental milestones that are appropriate for their age, this is known as a developmental delay. Sometimes a delay affects only a single area of development, such as cognitive functions, movement, speech, vision, or interpersonal skills. In other cases, a delay affects multiple areas, which is known as a global developmental delay.
Causes of developmental delays vary widely and may not be serious. For example, a child might encounter problems with speech if ear infections disrupt their hearing. This issue usually resolves easily, removing the developmental obstacle with it. However, preventable birth injuries involving perinatal asphyxia (oxygen deprivation) often cause developmental delays. Many other types of complications, errors, or oversights during childbirth can result in these problems as well, such as:
Children develop the ability to think and learn at varying rates and in varying ways. However, a doctor may suspect a developmental delay involving cognitive functions if a child struggles to understand everyday objects or their normal surroundings after a certain age. Among other things, a child may not know how to use gestures or how to follow instructions. They may not know how things work even when they have been told or shown many times.
Children who do not respond to sounds or cannot string together words to form sentences may suffer from speech delays. This may indicate a problem with understanding the speech of others or developing language skills of their own. Sometimes developmental delays involving speech may resolve easily through speech therapy.
Another important area of development is movement. Developmental delays may undermine motor skills and prevent a child from conducting certain physical activities. If a child misses milestones for sitting up, rolling over, crawling, or standing, this may suggest a delay involving motor functions. Meanwhile, problems with grasping objects can indicate a delay affecting fine motor skills.
Sometimes a child does not interact with other people in ways that would be expected of children their age. They may not show facial expressions appropriate to the situation, and they may struggle to voice their needs. A doctor also may suspect a developmental delay involving emotions or socialization if a child does not respond well to comforting or does not want to engage in activities that involve other people, such as games or group playtime.
A developmental disability is different from a developmental delay. Disabilities are more serious, permanent conditions, while delays can be resolved over time. In analyzing apparent developmental delays, a doctor may need to rule out the possibility of a disability. Parents should not assume that their child does or does not have a disability, as opposed to a delay, until receiving medical confirmation.
Some types of developmental delays may be unavoidable, while others cannot be easily traced to a specific source. When medical malpractice during childbirth causes a developmental delay, though, a family may be able to pursue compensation for related costs. These may include therapy and medications to treat the delay and help the child get back on a normal course. If the child suffered physical pain or emotional distress, they may recover damages for those types of harm as well. Medical malpractice cases are more complex than ordinary personal injury cases, so parents likely should retain an attorney to bring this type of claim.
Among the distinctive features of a medical malpractice case is its reliance on expert testimony. This is because a patient must prove that a doctor violated the professional standard of care, which consists of the practices used by competent doctors in their field when treating a similar patient. Ordinary people would not know how to define this standard without an explanation from an expert witness who is familiar with the defendant’s field. Often, a medical malpractice case also will require an affidavit of merit from a medical expert, confirming that the facts of the case support a finding that malpractice occurred.