The Total Load Theory: Why So Many Children Have Developmental Problems

In this blog post, Kelly Dorfman, MS, LND details how the total load theory can explain why so many children today have neurodevelopmental disorders, as well as other chronic health conditions.

An increasing number of children are being diagnosed with cognitive and developmental delays. As a result, drugs are being used in unprecedented ways to control behavior and learning. While medication may provide short-term relief, the underlying cause of the problems must be identified or the trend will continue.

Typical scientific analysis of the situation would require a series of experiments to isolate single factors causing the “disease”. Unfortunately, developmental problems are not illnesses caused by germs or a specific brain malfunction but are a group of symptoms created when the body has been stressed beyond normal endurance.

What Is the Total Load Theory?

According to the total load theory, at some point, which varies widely between individuals, the body can no longer handle the “load” of stressors such as nutritional deficiencies and aggressive use of medications, and begins to show signs of that burden. The signs of overload are the characteristic symptoms of attention deficiencies and developmental delays.

Children are much more sensitive reactors to external forces than their parents. Because their nervous systems are still maturing and their bodies are growing in size, they cannot as easily handle extra strain. Between the ages 18 months and two years of age is a particularly vulnerable time because of the extra demands of cognitive milestones such as the evolution of speech and the need to relate to others in more complex ways.

Components of the Total Load Theory

The following is a brief description of some of the known components of the total load leading to develop­mental problems.

Birth Trauma

Birth trauma includes the obvious known problems such as oxygen deprivation, along with the subtle problems such as emergency C-sections.

Pregnancy Complications

Peer-reviewed medical esearch shows some association between higher numbers of pregnancy complica­tions and later autism and other developmental delay diagnoses. Diabetes, infection and the use of some medications such as Tylenol (acetaminophen, paracetemol) for illnesses suffered during the gestational period may contribute.

Mothers with Immune and Nutrient Deficiencies

There is evidence that parents of delayed children as a population may have more medical problems than average. Severe allergies, a history of infertility problems, autoimmune diseases (such as Grave’s disease) and chronic fatigue syndrome are some of the diagnoses often seen. Parents should not feel guilty. Nobody knows why an association is passed on in some cases but not others.

Insufficient Sensory Stimulation

Toddlers adopted from institutions can be so impaired from sensory deprivation that this factor alone is known to account for later problems.

Nutritional Deficiencies

If the body lacks specific nutrients, it simply does not do the functions that require those nutrients. For example, if infants are born deficient in zinc, they will have weaker immune systems. Severe vitamin C deficiencies in infants have been linked to sudden infant death syndrome. Essentially fatty acid insufficiencies contribute to neurological damage.

Aggressive Use of Medication

An inherently weak immune system may lead to illnesses treated aggressively with antibiotics and other drugs. The medication itself has its own set of side-effects which contribute to developmental issues.

Environmental Pollutants

We know from animal models that the immature nervous systems of infants, when exposed to environmental poisons, suffer three to 10 times more damage than their adult counterparts. Pollution is causing fertility, immu­nological and neurological problems in most other species.

Miscellaneous Other Markers

Frequent ear infections, colic, eczema, reflux, cradle cap, exclusive use of bottle feeding and unusually few number of normal childhood illnesses are all other factors seen more frequently in affected youngsters.

There are no truly typical cases when applying the total load theory. The combination of predisposing influences and expression of symptoms is as variable and individual as the children themselves. Each delayed child is unique, yet all are related.

About Kelly Dorfman MS LND

Kelly Dorfman is one of the world’s foremost experts on using nutrition therapeutically to improve brain function, energy and mood. Kelly’s special talent for integrating information from many sources and finding practical solutions has made her a popular speaker and workshop leader. She lectures extensively and is a member of Platform (formerly the National Speakers Association) and has been featured on numerous television programs including CNN’s American Morning.

Kelly’s award winning book, Cure Your Child With Food: The Hidden Connection Between Nutrition and Childhood Ailments (formerly known as What’s Eating Your Child) was given rave reviews by Publishers Weekly and the Washington Post.

As a go-to expert on nutrition issues, Kelly is frequently interviewed and quoted in the media. She has been featured in articles in The Wall Street Journal, Parade, Bethesda magazine, Living Without magazine, and the Huffington Post.

Kelly holds a master’s degree in nutrition/biology and is a licensed nutrition dietitian. She is a co-founder of Developmental Delay Resources, which has merged with Epidemic Answers. You can find out more about Kelly and her practice at

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