We come into the world with a need to explore our surroundings. While each child has his/her schedule for development and mastering new skills, infants are often eager early on to move their attention and body towards people and objects that comfort or interest them. Infants develop physically from the top down, starting with their heads and necks. At birth, an infant finds it difficult to hold their head up as their neck muscles are not strong enough to provide support. As infants and toddlers grow however, their determination to master movement, balance, gross and fine motor skills remain strong.

When we talk about physical development, we use the terms “gross motor skills” and “fine motor skills”. Gross motor development refers to the physical skills that use large body movements, normally involving the entire body, while fine motor development refers to smaller, more precise movements normally using the hands and fingers.
Physical development occurs at different times for all children depending on a number of factors such as the child’s unique characteristics, the family’s values and culture as well as available resources. However, many infants and toddlers experience developmental milestones at similar times. These are considered as averages and not really a rule of thumb.

The chart provided in the toddler development milestones gives you a rough idea of what these might be. For example, by 18 months the toddler can walk alone and by approximately 2 ½ years increases in fine motor skills by being able to hold a pencil between the thumb and two fingers.

While a toddler would naturally move towards development, it is also important for certain conditions to exist which include basic needs such as nutrition and age-appropriate food, warmth and shelter, health and clean environment.

It is also important to note that values and beliefs held by the family and culture contribute to our knowledge and understanding of growth and development. For example, some families might feel that being independent and able to eat on your own is an important skill for a toddler to learn, whereas for others this might not be an important fine motor skill to master as a toddler.

There are also a number of other influences on a toddler’s physical development;

  • Prematurity and low birth weight may bring about respiratory difficulties, feeding problems and digestive problems
  • Prenatal influences such as genetic inheritance, exposure to drugs and alcohol which may result in conditions such as fetal alcohol syndrome or intellectual disabilities.
  • Temperament (the way a toddler approaches his/her world)
  • Family composition, lifestyle, level of education and housing conditions
  • Developmental delays or disabilities and health conditions

By recognizing developmental delays during infancy or toddlerhood, early interventions can be provided and thus maybe more effective than if the delays were not acknowledged until childhood. This is important as delays in physical development might not only affect gross and fine motor skills but also the entire development of the child. For example, if a child is unable to smile and raise himself/herself to be picked up, it could impact the relationship between the parent and child and thus affect social and emotional development.

Healthy physical development is not only dependent on nutrition, and the development of the physical body such as the brain, the central nervous system, muscles, bones but also on the interactions and experiences offered to the toddler.

Therefore, as much as providing good food and a clean environment is important, stimulation and providing opportunities for the toddler to grow is also imperative for appropriate physical development.