Motor development refers to changes in children’s ability to control their body’s movements, from infants’ first spontaneous waving and kicking movements to the adaptive control of reaching, locomotion, and complex sport skills” (Adolph, Weise, and Marin 2003, 134).

Motor development refers to the development of a child’s bones, muscles and ability to move around and manipulate his or her environment. Motor development can be divided into two sections: gross motor development and fine motor development.

  • Gross motor development involves the development of the large muscles in the child’s body. These muscles allow us to sit, stand, walk and run, among other activities. It also includes eye-hand coordination skills such as ball skills (throwing, catching, kicking).
  • Fine motor development involves the small muscles of the body, especially in the hand. It involves finger and hand skills such as writing, cutting, opening lunch boxes, and tying shoelaces.

Motor development also involves how well children’s muscles work. This is referred to as muscle tone. Children need a balanced muscle tone in order to develop their muscles and use them with ease when standing, sitting, rolling, walking, running, swimming and all other postures and actions.

Motor development also involves the child’s vestibular and proprioceptive systems. Both of these are part of the child’s sensory system.

  • The vestibular system is located in the inner ear and allows the body to maintain balance.
  • The proprioceptive system involves the inner ear, the muscles, joints and tendons. It allows the body to understand where it’s located. Maintaining balance and posture and having coordinated movements are only possible if the proprioceptive system is functioning well.

The typical development of a child’s motor skills usually follows a predictable order or sequence.

  • Development occurs from the inner body to the outer body. This means that children usually develop or gain control over their arms before they develop or gain control over their fingers.
  • Development also starts from top to bottom. Children need to control their head first, then they will gain control over their legs and feet.


Developmental delays may be related to problems with gross motor skills, such as crawling or walking, or fine motor skills, such as using fingers to grasp a spoon. It is when a child does not progress as expected in achievement of specific milestones such as learning to sit, crawl, walk, play or talk.  All babies and children develop milestones at their own pace but “every child should do certain tasks by a certain age”.

Developmental Delay is when your child does not reach their developmental milestones at the expected times. … If your child is temporarily lagging behind, that is not called developmental delay. Delay can occur in one or many areas—for example, gross or fine motor, language, social, or thinking skills.

Global Developmental Delay (GDD) is the general term used to describe a condition that occurs during the developmental period of a child between birth and 18 years. It is usually defined by the child being diagnosed with having a lower intellectual functioning than what is perceived as ‘normal’.

Kids develop skills in five main areas of development:

  1. Cognitive (or thinking) skills: This is the ability to think, learn and solve problems. In babies, this looks like curiosity. It’s how your child explores the world around him with his eyes, ears and hands. In toddlers, it also includes things like learning to count, naming colors and learning new words.
  2. Social and emotional skills: This is the ability to relate to other people. That includes being able to express and control emotions. In babies, it means smiling at others and making sounds to communicate. In toddlers and preschoolers, it means being able to ask for help, show and express feelings and get along with others.
  3. Speech and language skills: This is the ability to use and understand language. For babies, this includes cooing and babbling. In older children, it includes understanding what’s said and using words correctly and in ways that others can understand.
  4. Fine and gross motor skills: This is the ability to use small muscles (fine motor), particularly in the hands, and large muscles (gross motor) in the body. Babies use fine motor skills to grasp objects. Toddlers and preschoolers use them to do things like hold utensils, work with objects and draw. Babies use gross motor skills to sit up, roll over and begin to walk. Older children use them to do things like jump, run and climb stairs.
  5. Activities of daily living: This is the ability to handle everyday tasks. For children, that includes eating, dressing and bathing themselves.

A developmental delay can occur in just one area or in a few. A global developmental delay is when kids have delays in at least two areas.

There is no one cause of developmental delays, but some risk factors include:

  • Complications at birth: Being born too early (prematurely); low birth weight; not getting enough oxygen at birth.
  • Environmental issues: Lead poisoning; poor nutrition; exposure to alcohol or drugs before birth; difficult family situations; trauma.
  • Other medical conditions: Chronic ear infections; vision problems; illnesses, conditions, or injuries that have a significant and long-term effect on a child’s day-to-day activities.

Key Takeaways:

  • There’s no one specific cause of developmental delays.
  • Developmental delays can be an early sign of a learning or attention issue.
  • Early detection and intervention is important to help your child develop skills.



Doctors sometimes use the terms “developmental delay” and “developmental disability” to mean the same thing. They’re actually not the same thing, but it is sometimes difficult to determine whether a young child has a delay or a disability, or why.

Developmental disabilities are issues that kids don’t outgrow or catch up from, though they can make progress. They aren’t the same as learning disabilities, but they can make learning more difficult. Some conditions that can cause developmental disabilities include Down syndrome, Angelman syndrome, autism, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) and brain injuries.

Developmental delays may be caused by short-lived issues, such as a speech delay being caused by hearing loss from ear infections or a physical delay being caused by a long hospitalization. Delays may also be early signs of learning and attention issues. While it’s not always clear what is causing the delay, early intervention can often help kids catch up. Some kids still have delays in skills when they reach school age. In that case, they may be eligible to receive special education services.

If a child isn’t catching up as quickly as expected, a specialist may suggest doing an evaluation to get a better sense of what’s going on. It could also help guide the types of services and supports that would meet his needs.