National child development milestone changes not tied to pandemic

CLAIM: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quietly lowered the milestones for early childhood development in response to the pandemic.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. Experts relied on research done prior to the pandemic to recommend changes to childhood development milestones used by pediatric professionals to identify developmental delays or disabilities.

THE FACTS: Social media users are misrepresenting updates to national child development milestones, such as communication or cognitive behaviors, to falsely claim that changes were made because of the effects of the pandemic on children from masks and lockdowns.

Posts shared on Twitter and Facebook shared screenshots of the new updates and tied them to the pandemic.

You know how The Parents have been screaming about developmental delays caused by masks? Well @CDCgov just took care of this for us by lowering milestones. The “new normal,” is kids with developmental delays,” one tweet said.

Researchers who took part in the study in collaboration with the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics say that the milestone updates have no relation to the pandemic, as they are based on pre-pandemic data.

The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recently announced that they had revised childhood development milestones as part of “Learn the Signs. Act Early,” a program designed to encourage parents to monitor their children for childhood developmental delays and disabilities. Pediatric and early childcare professionals rely on milestones to discern developmental delays in children with the hopes of spotting them sooner for treatment.

The CDC had asked the American Academy of Pediatrics to put together a group of experts to update the milestones, which were originally created in 2004. The group released their findings on Feb. 8.

Despite what the posts say online, none of the group’s work relied on data from the pandemic. According to the CDC, the milestone revisions were in process for several years prior to the coronavirus outbreak.

Researchers attempted to standardize the ages at which children can be expected to reach social and emotional milestones. For example, the group looked at what ages children should be laughing or showing facial expressions, said Dr. Paul Lipkin, a member of the AAP Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics and Council on Children with Disabilities.

Previously, developmental milestone checklists were marked at an age where 50% of children can be expected to reach a particular milestone. But this wasn’t helpful for families worried about their child’s development and could lead to delays in diagnosing problems.

To address this, the group recommended increasing the percentile of children from 50% to 75% who would be expected to exhibit behaviors at a specific age. Dr. Jennifer Cross, developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, said basing milestones on the 50th percentile gave a false sense of security to some parents if their child did not reach a milestone and allowed some delays to go unnoticed. The new percentage, she noted, will hopefully catch more potential delays.

“Six months go by and you have potentially missed out on a child that you could have potentially been doing something about,” Cross said.

The new milestones also included adding checklists at the ages of 15 months and 30 months (2.5 years). Checklists now cover children from 2 months to 5 years of age.

Lipkin, professor of pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, added that the prior milestones list was outdated and was based on information before researchers focused on identifying children with autism spectrum disorder. Before revising the milestones, the group looked at over 1,000 studies before narrowing it down to 34.

Lipkin said none of the studies included data past 2019. The researchers detailed their revised recommendations in the “Evidence-Informed Milestones for Developmental Surveillance Tools” study, which clearly states that experts collaborated through in-person meetings, six virtual meetings and email reviews from January to September of 2019.

While experts continue to investigate any impacts the pandemic has had on children, Lipkin said that the new milestones in no way reflect that.

“This was clearly an effort intended to best inform families so they could get their children identified and get help that they needed,” he said.


This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.