- Identify infant and toddler physical and motor developmental milestones and ways to support development for all infants and toddlers.
- Describe the brain’s role in infant and toddler physical development.
- Recognize influences of physical growth and development.
Physical Development From the Start
When healthy babies are born, their internal systems, such as breathing and eating, are developed and functional. All infants will require responsive care from loving adults, proper nutrition, and appropriately stimulating environments to support the best possible physical development. Infant and toddler physical development occurs quickly, and it is essential to understand physical development during various stages.
From birth, infants want to explore their world. While each child has his or her own schedule for development and mastering new skills, infants are often eager early on to move their mouths, eyes and bodies toward people and objects that comfort or interest them. They continue to practice skills that let them move closer to desired objects. Ongoing observation and frequent conversations with their families can help you learn what infants and toddlers are able to do, what they are learning to do, and in what areas they could use your support.
Infants develop physically from the top down, starting with their heads and necks. At birth, an infant has a very difficult time holding up his or her head because the neck muscles are not strong enough to provide support. As infants and toddlers grow, their determination to master movement, balance, and fine- and gross-motor skills remains strong. Rolling and crawling occur as infants develop skills in using large-muscle groups. Grasping and picking up objects with fingers are signs of small-muscle skill growth.
Influences on Early Physical Growth and Development
There is no exact age at which all infants should be able to grasp objects or hold up their heads without support. Physical development occurs at different times for all children depending on many factors, such as the child’s unique characteristics, the family’s values and culture, and the available resources. However, many infants and toddlers experience developmental milestones at similar times. The chart below outlines information about what infants and toddlers are likely experiencing and learning during different periods:
Keep in mind that the milestones above are simply the average ages at which specific development is observed.
Certain conditions must exist for an infant or toddler to grow and develop. A young child’s basic needs, or physical needs, include:
- Food (nutritious and age-appropriate)
- Shelter (protection from harm)
- Clean air and environment
- Health and dental care
- Activity and rest
We also know that the way we ourselves were raised is important to our understanding of how and in what contexts children develop. The values and beliefs held by our family and culture contribute to our knowledge of growth and development.
Culture Impacts How We See and Interpret Behaviors and Development
Because culture shapes so many parts of an infant’s and toddler’s development, you must understand the practices, beliefs and values of the families you support. Without this understanding, it is difficult to interpret the infant’s or toddler’s behaviors and development. For example, you may believe it is important to help toddlers learn to become independent and begin to feed themselves using fine motor skills. A family, however, may not view independence as important because they believe it is more valuable to depend upon one another.
Other influences on infant and toddler physical growth and development are:
- Prenatal care and development, including genetic inheritance, family patterns, exposure to drugs and alcohol; birth experience
- Prematurity (birth before the 38th week of development) and low birth weight may bring respiration difficulties, vision problems, feeding and digestive problems
- Temperament, or the ways an infant or toddler approaches his or her world
- Family’s composition, lifestyle, level of education and housing
- Maturation, or the sequence of biological elements that reflect a pattern of growth and development
- Developmental delays or disabilities, including health concerns
You can also review the handout Infant and Toddler Physical Development to learn even more about important milestones in physical development, as well as variations in timing and rate of physical development of infants and toddlers.
The Brain’s Role in Physical Development
You can easily observe infants making movements with their bodies and refining their physical skills. Thanks to advances in research and technology, we can now also see how the brain changes and grows as young children develop. At birth, the brain is 25 percent of its adult size and by age 5, it reaches 90 percent of adult size. Early-life interactions and experiences of infants and toddlers help them make sense of the world and form connections between the different parts of the brain.
These supportive experiences and connections help foster more coordination and stronger muscles. Research tells us that as infants repeat and practice different movements, such as turning their heads or reaching for an object, they are building and maintaining connections between brain cells. In essence, the brain is busy making sense of the experience.
It is important for infants and toddlers to have time for these new experiences and to explore the world around them with you, a trusted and caring adult caregiver. The repeated experience of safely exploring together helps infants and toddlers learn they can trust you, while also ensuring that their brains focus on learning, developing, and making connections. If infants and toddlers do not have nurturing and responsive adults to help keep them safe, their brains will instinctually focus on survival and will have less opportunity to create and strengthen connections for further skill development, including physical growth.
Supporting Physical Development for All Learners
Physical development, including gross- and fine-motor skills, consumes the interest of infants and toddlers as they practice learned skills and look to develop new ones. Healthy physical development is dependent upon nutrition, brain development, the central nervous system, muscles, bones and the interactions and experiences that are offered to infants and toddlers. By recognizing developmental delays during infancy or toddlerhood, early intervention may be more effective than if the delays were not acknowledged until childhood. Below are some characteristics of possible physical concerns or developmental alerts:
By 3 months
By 6 months
By 12 months
By 18 months
By 24 months
By 36 months
Delays in physical development may affect more than gross- and fine-motor skills. For example, if an infant is unable to smile at her or his parents or lift her or his arms to be picked up, this could impact social and emotional development (e.g., relationship building).
Your supervisor, trainer or coach can help you learn more about the programs and services available to you and families that help assess and enhance physical development and learning.
How can you make sure you are providing age-appropriate experiences to support infant and toddler physical development? Take a moment to read and review the sets of guidelines on the following webpage from SHAPE (Society of Health and Physical Educators, formerly known as the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, or NASPE): https://www.shapeamerica.org/standards/guidelines/activestart.aspx. Next, try one or more of the following activities with the infants or toddlers in your care:
- When an infant is awake and active, offer “tummy time” — lay the baby on the floor on his or her tummy
- Hold an infant or dance with a toddler to music — toddlers can swing colorful scarves in the air or jump on bubble wrap while the music is playing
- Offer fingerplays and other movement experiences in which mobile infants and toddlers can use their bodies
- Use colorful mobiles over infants’ cribs so that they can try to reach and grasp or kick with their feet
- Have toddlers experience kicking, catching, rolling, and bouncing balls
- Encourage toddlers to scribble with crayons
Once finished, share your experience and what you learned with a supervisor, trainer or coach.
Download and print the handout, Scenarios – Gross and Fine Motor Development. After reading the scenarios, consider what you have learned throughout this lesson. Which characteristics or behaviors would be considered fine-motor skills and which would be considered gross-motor skills? Write these down and then think about possible ways you could support each of these young children. You can also review the handouts in the Learn section for additional ideas.
Once finished, share your thoughts and responses with a supervisor, trainer or coach.
Download and print the following resources and consider using them in your classroom. You can use the Milestone Moments document to monitor children’s physical development in your classroom. The second document, What Grown-Ups Understand About Child Development, is a national benchmark survey sponsored in part by ZERO TO THREE. Read about some of the findings of this study and think more about your work with families and ways you are gathering information from them and sharing information with them regarding the physical development of the infants and toddlers in your care.
|Developmental Milestones||A set of skills or behaviors that most children can do at a certain age range|
|Fine-motor development||The development of skills that involve the use of smaller muscles in the arms, hands, and fingers that allows a child to perform tasks such as drawing, cutting with scissors, stringing beads, tying, zipping, or molding clay|
|Gross-motor development||The development of skills that involve the use of large muscles in the legs or arms, as well as general strength and stamina; examples of such skills include jumping, throwing, climbing, running, skipping or kicking|
|Rooting reflex||An infant’s turning of the head toward things that touch her or his cheek|
|Sucking reflex||An infant’s sucking at things that touch her or his lips|
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