What is gross motor delay? Common causes explained

It is common for children to develop skills at varying rates. Even siblings can hit milestones at different stages of development from one another.  

However, it’s also not unusual for some children to show a delay to their gross motor development. There can be multiple reasons that cause gross motor delay, but there is some amazing support available for both children and their families regarding it should your child exhibit some of the signs. 




What are the signs of gross motor delay? 

Firstly, babies with a gross motor delay may find it difficult to roll when playing. They also might appear to struggle when trying to lift their head. This can happen when they are trying to engage with a toy, an adult or and other babies.   

At the toddler stage, you may spot that your child is struggling to sit up independently. For example, they may flop down, lean to the side, or try to prop themselves up against objects and people. Other signs are struggling to pull themselves up to stand and, having difficulty taking steps to walk. 

As your child develops, poor balance can become one of the clearest tell-tale signs of gross motor delay. For instance, climbing frames and bicycles both require good balance for children to use them safely and enjoyably. While it can take children a while to become comfortable scaling walls and riding on the road, a child with a gross motor delay may either ask for more help than their peers, or even try to avoid these activities altogether. 

Gross motor delay can be common in young children. It’s certainly not unusual for children to show a delay in particular areas of learning. In some cases, children do simply ‘catch up’ with their peers – it can just take longer for certain skills to develop.  



What can cause gross motor delay? 

There can be many underlying reasons for gross motor delay in young children and babies. A lot of the time, a gross motor delay is just that – often, children will develop just like their friends, siblings and peers, but at a later date.


Gross motor delay and low muscle tone 

A common explanation for gross motor delay can be low muscle tone, also known as hypotonia. Your child’s muscles may appear to be quite floppy, and they may find it difficult to move their body in ‘common ways’. For instance, a child with hypotonia could need more support when moving from sitting to standing.  

Children with low muscle tone can also have hypermobility. Hypermobile children often struggle with balance and have issues controlling the joints in their legs, hands, and fingers. This can also cause them to appear clumsy. [1]  


Gross motor delay and developmental coordination disorders (dyspraxia) 

Children who have developmental coordination disorders, such as dyspraxia, often find activities such as running, jumping or catching difficult. [2]  Seating positions and posture are also common challenges they face, as well as being prone to spilling. 


Gross motor delay and autism 

Autism can be another cause of gross motor delay. It is common for children who fall on the autism spectrum to struggle with balance, and a lot of children with autism also have a general developmental delay.  

Children who have been diagnosed with autism may begin walking at an older age to their peers, and could also walk with an unusual gait that could appear more like tiptoeing, bouncing, or rocking. [3]   

Children with autism may also be under or over sensitive in regards to proprioception (body awareness). Those who are under sensitive, for example, might stomp more when walking, and bump into others. [4]Autistic children may also at times, appear to have difficulty regulating pressure when using tools and equipment. [4]


Gross motor delay and premature birth 

It is common for babies who are born prematurely to show a gross motor delay. Premature babies can sometimes appear to be uncoordinated, for example, and may  taken take more time developing skills than their peers. Occasionally, premature babies may also show developmental delays in more than one area. [5] 



How can children with gross motor delay be supported?

There are multiple ways in which children who are presenting with a gross motor delay can be supported. 



Sturdy footwear is a great method of this for children have issues related to balance, or low muscle tone, and adding insoles can aid further support this. [1] 


Wobble cushions 

Children with hypermobility may benefit from using a wobble cushion as they can be used to support core strength: a key element of gross motor development. [6] 


Balance toys and games 

Balance toys and games are a fun way to support children who have a gross motor skill delay. Rocking seesaws for children to stand on are great for supporting the development of core strength in young children, for instance.  

Toys like these can be built up to be used independently, too. To start off with, you could hold your child’s hand when they play with them, and reduce this as they grow more confident. 

Other useful equipment could be stepping stones or even homemade obstacle courses. Bikes and scooters also promote core strength alongside gross motor skills. Some children may also enjoy gentle yoga activities.  


Physical therapy 

For children who require more intense support for gross motor development, physical therapy could be an option to look into. If a medical professional feels as though therapy will be a benefit, your child could get referred to a local service. 

There are many physical therapy options available for children with gross motor delay. It may vary depending on what is available in your area, but when children are usually assessed in terms of their posture and mobility, strategies will then be put in place accordingly. This could be a series of therapy sessions or activities that can be carried out at home and in school or nursery. [7] 


For more information regarding gross motor development, simply visit our dedicated online resource here, or download the My First Five Years app to get access to a wealth of video activities around gross motor development.




[1] NHS Childrens Physiotherapy Team. (2017). Gross motor skill information for children with developmental delay. 

[2] Sheffield Children's NHS Foundation Trust. (2021). Developmental Co-ordination Disorders (DCD). Available: https://www.sheffieldchildrens.nhs.uk/services/dcd/. 

[3] Lauren Schenkman. (2020). Motor difficulties in autism, explained. Available: https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/motor-difficulties-in-autism-explained/. 

[4] Autism Together (Wirral Autistic Society). (2020). Autism and Proprioception. Available: https://www.autismtogether.co.uk/proprioception-and-autism-2/. 

[5] PRISM. (2020). Premature Children's Skills - Early Development. Available: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/helm/dev/prism/rlo3/1.html. 

[6] Hertfordshire Community Trust Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy team. (2021). Joint Hypermobility: Information for parents and carers. Available: https://www.hct.nhs.uk/media/4049/hsd-webinar-with-hct-logos-24920.pptx 

[7] NHS Bridgewater Community Healthcare Trust. (2021). Children’s Physiotherapy – Warrington. Available: https://bridgewater.nhs.uk/warrington/paediatricphysiotherapy/.