Human Growth and Development

In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan.


In the context of childhood development, growth is defined as an irreversible constant increase in size, and development is defined as growth in psychomotor capacity. Both processes are highly dependent on genetic, nutritional, and environmental factors. Evaluation of growth and development is a crucial element in the physical examination of a patient. A piece of good working knowledge and the skills to evaluate growth and development are necessary for any patient's diagnostic workup. The early recognition of growth or developmental failure helps for effective intervention in managing a patient's problem.

Stages in Human Growth and Development

  1. Fetal stage: Fetal health issues can have detrimental effects on postnatal growth. One-third of neonates with intrauterine growth retardation might have curtailed postnatal growth. Good perinatal care is an essential factor in promoting fetal health and indirectly postnatal growth.

  2. Postnatal stage: The process of postnatal growth and development happens together but at different rates. The growth occurs by discontinuous saltatory spurts with a stagnant background. There are five significant phases in human growth and development,

    1. Infancy (neonate and up to one year age)

    2. Toddler ( one to five years of age)

    3. Childhood (three to eleven years old) - early childhood is from three to eight years old, and middle childhood is from nine to eleven years old.

    4. Adolescence or teenage (from 12 to 18 years old)

    5. Adulthood

Factors Affecting Growth and Development

The growth and development are positively influenced by factors, like parental health and genetic composition, even before conception.

  1. Genetic factors play a primary role in growth and development. The genetic factors influencing height is substantial in the adolescence phase. A large longitudinal cohort study of 7755 Dutch twin pairs has suggested that the additive genetic factors predominantly explained the phenotypic correlations across the ages for height and body mass index.

  2. Fetal health has a highly influential role in achieving growth and development. Any stimulus or insult during fetal development causes developmental adaptations that produce permanent changes in the latter part of life.

  3. After birth, the environmental factors may exert either a beneficial or detrimental effect on growth.

    1. Socioeconomic factors: Children of higher socio-economical classes are taller than the children of the same age and sex in the lower socioeconomic groups. Urbanization has positively influenced growth. The secular trend is observed in growth where the kids grow taller and mature more rapidly than the previous generation. This secular trend is observed significantly in developed countries like North America.

    2. The family characteristics: Higher family education levels have a positive impact on growth. The inadequate emotional support and inadequate developmental stimulus, including language training, might cause growth and development deterioration.

    3. The human-made environment influences human growth and development significantly. Certain ongoing studies have proven the relationship of pollutants in sexual maturation, obesity, and thyroid function. The excess lead exposure antenatally significantly associates with low birth weight. Noise pollution due to transportation sources also has an association with reduced prenatal growth.

    4. Nutrition

      1. Malnutrition plays a detrimental role in the process of growth and development.

      2. Deficiencies of trace minerals can affect growth and development. Iron deficiency usually affects psychomotor development and does not affect growth. Zinc deficiency might cause growth retardation and developmental delay. Selenium, iodine, manganese, and copper also play a significant role.

      3. Growth faltering or rapid weight gain in early childhood influences health in the later part of life. The diet in early childhood has a strong association with the likelihood of obesity later in life. 'Early Protein Hypothesis' shows that lowering the protein supply during infancy helps achieve normal growth and reduce obesity in early childhood. This concept of the early protein hypothesis helps in improving the food products for children.

  4. Genetic and environmental factors influence the growth and development in a perplexing interrelated pathway. Genetic and environmental risk factors are not mutually exclusive. Plasticity is the potential of a specific genotype to bring out diversified phenotypes in response to diverse environmental factors. The developmental plasticity can happen from the embryonic stage to adolescence and can be passed onto the next generation.

  5. Role of experience during early childhood: Exposure to adverse experiences in early childhood might hinder development. Profound neglect during early childhood can impair development. Children adopted before six months of age have similar development when compared to their non-adoptive siblings. If children adopted after six months have a high risk of cognition deficits, behavioral issues, autism, and hyperactivity. Early intervention for children with adverse experiences is the pillar in healthy development.

Publication types

  • Study Guide