What Factors Affect Physical Development in Childhood?

A.M. Boyle
A.M. Boyle
Exposure to air pollution may increase a child's chances of developing asthma and other breathing problems.
Exposure to air pollution may increase a child's chances of developing asthma and other breathing problems.

There are many factors that affect physical development in childhood. They fall into two primary categories, namely, biological aspects and environmental influences. These different factors generally have more or less influence during the various stages of childhood. The particular effects of each factor also vary from child to child. Determining the exact outcome that each factor will have on any particular child is nearly impossible, but in most instances, there will be some degree of influence.

Many physical characteristics of young children are imbued by their parents.
Many physical characteristics of young children are imbued by their parents.

Biological factors that affect physical development in childhood include heredity, genetics, and ethnicity. Illness and physical abnormalities greatly influence a child’s physical development. Nutrition plays a large role, as well, and includes not only the child’s nutrition but also the prenatal nutrition and the health of the child's mother.

With regard to heredity and ethnicity, the physical attributes of a child are largely determined by his or her parents. For instance, if there is a family history of short stature, chances are the child will not grow to be very tall. Similarly, ethnicity often determines developmental factors such a skin or hair color. This not only includes obvious characteristics, such as hair color and height, but can also include “hidden” characteristics, such as a child’s predisposition toward weight gain.

Nutrition has a major influence on a young child's physical growth and development.
Nutrition has a major influence on a young child's physical growth and development.

Additionally, some conditions related to physical development in childhood are genetically wired into the child. For instance, an endocrine deficiency such as hypothyroidism will often stunt a child’s skeletal development. Other physical conditions or illnesses can also impact a child’s physical development. For instance, if a child develops a severe lung infection during infancy, his or her lungs may not develop properly, and the child could have residual effects throughout his or her lifetime. When serious illnesses are encountered in the earlier stages of childhood growth, they generally have a greater impact on later development.

People who have a familial history of chronic asthma are likely to inherit the condition.
People who have a familial history of chronic asthma are likely to inherit the condition.

Nutrition plays a huge role in physical development in childhood. If prenatal nutrition is lacking, an infant is likely to demonstrate developmental delays. Similarly, if a child does not receive a sufficient amount of vitamins and other nutrients in his or her early years, the body will not be able to grow properly. This is a tremendous problem and readily apparent in parts of the world plagued by malnutrition.

Some conditions related to physical development in childhood are genetically wired into the child.
Some conditions related to physical development in childhood are genetically wired into the child.

While environmental factors are often associated emotional development, they also play a role in physical development as well. For instance, studies have shown that children grow more rapidly during the spring and summer months than during fall and winter. Therefore, children who are raised in warmer climates commonly grow at a more rapid pace than those raised in colder climates. As an additional example of environmental impact, children who are raised in areas where air pollution is an issue tend to have a higher incidence of asthma and other breathing problems and are more prone to developmental issues. Of course, issues such as abuse and neglect, also considered as environmental influences, have a grave effect on physical development in childhood.

Proper nutrition is an important factor in childhood development.
Proper nutrition is an important factor in childhood development.

Sometimes, the categories of biological and environmental factors overlap and become more difficult to distinguish. For instance, socioeconomic factors, such as poverty levels, can cause a child to be undernourished, which will in turn impact the child’s physical development. As another example, a child born to a migrant family and subject to child labor might not get the adequate amount of sleep and rest for his or her body to develop normally.

No two children develop in the same way. Similarly, no two children will react to biological and environmental factors in exactly the same way either. Consequently, while it is possible to pinpoint what factors will affect physical development in childhood, it is often quite difficult to predict what those effects will be.

Why Proper Nutrition Is Crucial

Eating a balanced diet is essential at all stages of life but vital during the developmental years for toddlers, children, and adolescents. Without a balanced diet, children might not grow properly, suffer malnutrition, and have more severe health problems.

A balanced diet includes all the major food groups and an appropriate amount of calories from your child’s age and activity level. Children should eat enough protein, grains, vegetables, fruits, and dairy throughout the day. Kids will always want dessert, but limiting their added sugars and sodium intake helps prepare them for a healthy lifestyle. 

Mayo Clinic has released a generalized guideline for how many calories children of different ages and genders should consume daily. Keep in mind these numbers will vary depending on your child’s activity level:

  • Girls from two to four years old: 1,000 to 1,400 per day
  • Boys from two to four years old: 1,000 to 1,600 per day
  • Girls from five to eight years old: 1,200 to 1,800 per day 
  • Boys from five to eight years old: 1,200 to 2,000 per day
  • Girls from nine to 13 years old: 1,400 to 2,200 per day 
  • Boys from nine to 13 years old: 1,600 to 2,600 per day 
  • Girls from 14 to 18 years old: 1,800 to 2,400 per day 
  • Boys from 14 to 18 years old: 2,000 to 3,200 per day

Health Conditions That Lack of Proper Nutrition Can Cause

When a child doesn’t get the proper nutrition they need, various health issues can occur. Parents can adjust some with a diet change, while prolonged lack of adequate nutrition can cause serious health problems in the future. Some conditions improper nutrition can cause are: 

  • Cardiovascular issues (heart attack or stroke)
  • Obesity 
  • Tooth decay 
  • Type II diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Certain types of cancer
  • Osteoporosis

How Lack of Sleep Affects Childhood Physical Development

Sleep can drastically affect how your child develops physically. When your child isn’t getting enough sleep for their age, they can experience decreased brain development, negative emotions and outbursts, growth issues, an insufficient immune system, and more. 

Ensuring your child is getting the appropriate amount of sleep per day or night throughout adolescence is the best way to set them up for success in their physical development. 

Sometimes, it can be challenging to get a toddler or young child to understand the importance of going to bed, but it’s necessary to get them to rest regularly to encourage the amount of sleep they need. 

Other children have problems sleeping that aren’t simply due to a reluctance for having an early bedtime. Children might be experiencing insomnia, acid reflux, periodic limb movements, or obstructive sleep apnea, which can all affect their ability to get enough sleep. 

If you’re concerned your baby, toddler, or child is suffering from one of these issues, it’s best if you contact their pediatrician

How Many Hours of Sleep Does a Child Need Each Night?

Children need a certain amount of sleep to keep them healthy and develop properly. According to the Children’s Hospital of Colorado, kids of varying ages need different amounts of sleep: 

  • Four to 12 months: 12 to 16 hours per day, including naps
  • One to two years old: 11 to 14 hours per day, including naps
  • Three to five years old: 10 to 13 hours per day, including naps
  • Six to 12 years old: nine to 12 hours
  • Thirteen to 18 years old: eight to 10 hours 

How Ethnicity Can Play a Role in Physical Development

A factor you might not consider that still plays a role in a child’s physical development is their race. Certain factors are more present in different ethnic groups than others. 

According to one study, there’s a higher risk of obesity and other health issues among African American and Asian children due to lack of physical activity than kids of different ethnicities.

Children of these ethnicities often deal with other factors like poverty and environmental issues, which contribute to their lack of physical activity and, therefore, potential physical development issues like obesity and lack of proper nutrition. 

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