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Infant Toddler Development Training
Module 1, Lesson 3

Factors that May Lead to Atypical Child Development

Previously we discussed typical child development and the vast differences that can exist. Some newborns have developmental differences caused by unfavorable conditions before, during, or after birth due to genetic and/or environmental influences. Factors that may lead to atypical child development are addressed below.


Sometimes atypical child development can be the result of teratogens' harmful agents in the environment. There are many teratogens in the environment such as the sedative drug thalidomide, which was found to have drastic effects in that it produced gross malformations of the embryo's developing arms and legs. Exposure to Agent Orange and other chemical weapons have resulted in developmental delays for young children. Smoking, alcohol, and/or drug use during pregnancy has also been linked to developmental problems at birth.

Drug abuse during pregnancy will have a significant effect on the developing fetus. Maternal use of cocaine, heroin, and similar drugs during pregnancy has been associated with miscarriages, premature birth, physical malformations, breathing difficulties, and higher risk of death at birth. Babies born addicted to cocaine and heroin suffer through withdrawals at the onset of life. It is also important to mention that paternal risk factors, such as the father's drug use may also damage chromosomes and cause malformations in the fetus. Cocaine ingested by the father adheres to the sperm cell and is present at the time of fertilization and can cause problems for the development of the fetus.

Maternal smoking has also been linked to miscarriage, premature birth, and low birth weight. Research suggests that the effect of smoking can be long-term in that children of smoking mothers during infancy are less responsive, more sluggish, and fussier (Chavkin, 1995; Diaz, 1997) and in later years, less competent readers and exhibit social adjustment problems (Fergusson, Horwood, & Lynskey, 1993).

Maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy can lead to impairments in the newborn's nervous system, mental retardation, hyperactivity, and deficiencies in physical development. Adolescents exposed prenatally to alcohol are more apt to exhibit learning and socialization problems (Colburn, 1996).

Go to the NIDA Survey which reports interesting data. According to Mathias (1995), "more than 5 percent of the 4 million women who gave birth in 1992 used illegal drugs while they were pregnant." Even though this study is somewhat dated, it contains extensive research data on drug use and pregnancy and provides relevant yet startling information. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) sponsored-survey on drug use during pregnancy also found 20.4 percent of pregnant women smoked and 18.8 percent drank alcohol at some point during their pregnancy. Note the table that illustrates pregnant women's usage of various drugs based on race. African-American women ranked highest in use of illicit drugs during pregnancy (11.3%) compared to white women (4.4%) and Hispanic women (4.5%). Use of alcohol and cigarettes were found to be highest by white women (23 % and 24.4 %, respectively) compared to African-American women (15.8 % and 19.8 %, respectively) and Hispanic women (8.7 % and 5.8 % respectively).

Over the counter or prescription drugs can also pose a threat to prenatal development. Such drugs as aspirin, tetracycline, and Valium have been know to cause complications and health problems. The drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), a drug early on prescribed to prevent miscarriage showed onset of difficulties on the offspring at puberty. Daughters were noted to have a higher rate of cervical cancer, vaginal abnormalities and are more likely to miscarry (Nevin, 1988). Male offspring were also found to be more likely to have genital abnormalities (Wilcox, Baird, & Weinberg, 1995).

Additional teratogens from those mentioned above include: exposure to radiation (x-rays), exposure to mercury and lead compounds (via car exhaust, paint, and other industrial materials) , and maternal diseases (e. g., rubella, AIDS, and toxoplasmosis--parasite infection caused by exposure to cat feces or undercooked meat). Children and pregnant women are the most vulnerable to mercury and lead poisoning. Pregnant women and children can incur damage to the nervous system, brain, and reproductive system by inhaling mercury vapors or through consumption of contaminated fish or birds.

Other Maternal Factors

In addition to avoiding the above mentioned teratogens, there are numerous ways in which expectant mothers can promote the development of their unborn child. Prenatal health care is important to seek as soon as pregnancy is suspected. Prevention or detection of possible problems early on is important in enhancing the healthy development of the fetus. Regular prenatal checkups are crucial for prospective mothers. During prenatal visits, prospective mothers are advised about good nutrition, the importance of taking vitamin supplements, and are examined for possible concerns. It is important that prospective mothers engage in good nutrition and maintain regular exercise and tend to their emotional well-being. The mother's age can also have an influence on fetal development. Some teenage mothers may face a higher rate of birth problems due to factors other than age such as lack of prenatal care, and poor nutrition, stress, and health problems correlated with low socio-economic backgrounds. Women who are waiting until their thirties or forties to have children face a greater risk of infertility, miscarriage, and babies born with chromosomal abnormalities.

Rh factor incompatibility can also be a cause of serious problems for a mother's second baby and subsequent babies. When the mother's Rh factor is negative and the father's Rh factor is positive, the baby may inherit the father's Rh factor. Due to the Rh factor incompatibility, the mother forms antibodies against the fetus and reacts to the baby's blood as if there were a foreign substance present and "attacks" the baby's blood. This "attack" destroys the baby's red blood cells affecting the baby's ability to carry oxygen in his/her blood which can result in the death of the fetus. Typically this does not happen with the first baby due to the length of time it takes for antibodies to form. However, with subsequent pregnancies, the mother's antibodies can attack the blood cells of the fetus by way of the placenta. Rh factor or Rh incompatibility can cause congenital anomalies (e.g. hearing loss and/or stillbirth). There are currently two types of treatment for Rh incompatibility. They are the use of the serum, RhoGam for the mother and blood transfusions of the fetus in the uterus if necessary.

Child abuse/Neglect

According to Beck (1999), child abuse can occur in the following ways:

  • Physical abuse - abuse that results in pain, cuts, welts, bruises, burns, broken bones, and other physical injuries
  • Sexual abuse - exposure to sexual comments, fondling, intercourse, and other types of exploitation
  • Physical neglect - conditions where children's basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, or supervision are not met.
  • Psychological abuse - actions that humiliate or terrorize children that results in damaging their emotional, social, or cognitive functioning. (p. 399).

Child abuse can result in diminished self-esteem, social skills and self-regulatory behaviors. According to Cicchetti and Toth (1998), maltreated children show difficulties in peer interaction and encounter learning problems, in addition to exhibiting severe depression and delinquency. Overall, child abuse can impede social/emotional well-being, attachment/bonding, cognitive/psychological development, and adaptive skills.


Genetic disorders inhibit child development. Some of the disorders can be detected prior to birth through amniocentesis (obtaining a sampling of amniotic fluid) and chronic villus biopsy (obtaining a sampling of the outer membrane tissue of the amniotic sac). Some genetic disorders can be identified in newborns with laboratory blood samples. Some developmental problems can be traced to genes and chromosomes, such as Down syndrome, spina bifida, vision impairment, hearing loss, cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs disease, and Fragile X syndrome. Some of these hereditary problems can lead to mental retardation, chronic health problems, or physical malformations. Certain heredity factors greatly affect early physical, motor, speech/language, sensory perception, and cognitive development.


Poor nutrition can affect fetal development as well as child development. Prenatally, the fetus depends totally on the mother to receive nutrition through the placenta. If a mother is malnourished it is likely the baby will be born malnourished, or worse, be born prematurely, suffer from low birth weight, or die soon after birth (Susser & Stein, 1994). Upon birth, malnourished infants' immune system development is suppressed resulting in frequent respiratory illnesses (Chandra, 1991). Many are irritable and unresponsive to stimulation around them.


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