Global Developmental Delay


The term 'developmental delay' or 'global development delay' is used when a child takes longer to reach certain development milestones than other children their age.


This might include learning to walk or talk, movement skills, learning new things and interacting with others socially and emotionally.


Someone with another condition, like Down’s syndrome or Cerebral palsy, may also have Global developmental delay.

Global developmental delay is an umbrella term used when children are significantly delayed in their cognitive and physical development. It can be diagnosed when a child is delayed in one or more milestones, categorized into motor skills, speech, cognitive skills, and social and emotional development. There is usually a specific condition which causes this delay, such as Fragile X syndrome or other chromosomal abnormalities. However, it is sometimes difficult to identify this underlying condition.

Other terms associated with this condition are failure to thrive (which focuses on lack of weight gain and physical development), intellectual disability (which focuses on intellectual deficits and the changes they cause to development) and developmental disability (which can refer to both intellectual and physical disability altering development).


Developmental delay can be caused by learning disabilities, in which case the delay can usually be overcome with time and support - such as with physiotherapists, occupational therapists, and speech and language therapists. Other causes which may cause a permanent delay in development include genetic disorders such as Down syndrome and Fragile X, childhood infections such as meningitis or encephalitis, and metabolic disorders such as hypothyroidism. Metabolic disorders are more likely to cause delayed development in older children as many congenital metabolic problems which are easily managed are screened for in the neonatal period. The use of toxic substances in pregnancy, particularly alcohol, can lead to developmental delay if they affect the neurological development of the fetus, such as in fetal alcohol syndrome. Even though there are many known causes of delay, some children will never receive a diagnosis


Developmental delay is usually initially noticed by parents or health visitors, and will then need to be assessed in order to ascertain which milestones they are missing. The child may only be delayed in one area of development, such as gross or fine motor, or in more than one. Developmental screening can be done by a trained healthcare professional, in which they will play with the child to see how they speak, move, and respond. If this indicates a delay, the child should then be assessed with a developmental evaluation, done by a highly trained professional such as a developmental psychologist or paediatrician, or a paediatric neurologist.

After a thorough history and examination, including the developmental assessment, 1/3 of cases can be diagnosed. If the diagnosis is unclear, or for confirmation, further tests can be done.

  • Chromosome microarray and karyotyping to look for trisomy, microdeletions, and duplications. It is the most sensitive diagnostic test available and is used first line in all cases, but can miss balanced translocations and low-level mosaicism.
  • Specific gene testing is available for certain disorders such as Rett syndrome, although these are expensive tests which aren't widely available
  • Selective metabolic investigations may be useful in the absence of other identifiable causes, and the specific tests done will depend on the presentation. Inborn errors of metabolism causing metabolic disorders are rare and there are limited treatment options even if they are successfully diagnosed.
  • Targeted MRI brain can be considered second line in selected patients, and is more likely to contribute to a diagnosis if the child has abnormal physical signs such as microcephaly, macrocephaly, a change in head circumference, focal neurological signs, or epilepsy.

Neonatal screening is used sometimes to diagnose certain inborn errors of metabolism before they cause significant developmental problems, with the aim to manage them so that no permanent damage occurs.

  • Medium-chain acyl-CoA dehydrogenase deficiency
  • Homocysteinuria
  • Congenital hypothyroidism
  • Isovaleric acidaemia
  • Glutaricaciduria type 1
  • Maple syrup urine disease

Management/ Treatment of Global Developmental Delay

The specific management of children with global developmental delay will depend on their individual needs and underlying diagnosis. Early intervention is essential to support the child to reach their full potential. Specialists involved in the management of GDD in children include

  • Speech therapists
  • Physical therapists
  • Occupational therapists
  • Hearing specialists
  • Developmental paediatricians
  • Neurologists
  • Providers of Early Intervention Services (depending on location)

As well as involving professionals, parents can support the development of their child by playing with them, reading with them, showing them how to do tasks, and supporting them to participate in activities of daily living such as washing, dressing, and eating