Any parent of multiple children can attest to the fact that raising each child offers a unique experience. All babies are different, and while there are certain developmental milestones to keep in mind, each little one will end up doing things on their own time. That said, if you’ve heard that boys tend to develop slower than girls, you’re not alone. This seems to be a common belief that is often passed down to new parents. While there certainly are differences between baby boys and girls, you have to wonder if their motor skills development is part of that. Do boys actually develop slower than girls?
There has been some scientific research done on the subject, and the answer to this question is more than a simple yes or no. To get to the bottom of things, Romper reached out to a few pediatric experts familiar with the subject. To find out if boys or girls develop faster, and how each gender develops differently, read on.
Do boys develop slower than girls?
Generally speaking, the answer is no — although that doesn’t mean there aren’t differences between the two genders. “On average, achievement of developmental milestones in the five developmental domains — cognitive, gross motor, fine motor, communication, social-emotional — is the same in boys and girls,” Dr. Mark Freilich, developmental pediatrician and founder/medical director at Total Kids Developmental Pediatric Resources tells Romper. “However, there may be subtle differences between the brain development of boys and girls that can account for different timetable expectations for skill mastery between the sexes.”
The developmental differences between boys & girls
While girls and boys might develop certain skills on different timelines, they will catch up to each other. For example, as Freilich points out, infant girls may seem more advanced in skills that require vision, hearing, memory, smell, or touch, and they might seem more social.
These differences likely are not because of gender alone. Dr. Fadiyla Dopwell, developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Developmental Pediatrix in Dallas, Texas, tells Romper, “I don’t believe they develop differently based on gender. If I see a twin boy and girl, my expectation for their developmental progress remains the same.” If you notice developmental differences between boys and girls, it’s most likely because of another reason. “Each child’s medical history, family history, and the support that they are receiving to promote their developmental progress should be considered,” Dopwell notes.
Freilich adds that these differences could be due to anything from hormones to genetics to experience, raising the question: How much of child development is nature versus nurture?
Motor skills between boys & girls
Some research has shown developmental differences in fine and gross motor skills. Fine motor skills refers to the ability to make small movements with your hands, and examples include drawing, using a zipper, and opening a door. Gross motor skills refer to the ability to use larger muscles in whole body movements, and examples include crawling, running, and throwing a ball.
“Girls show earlier achievement in fine motor skills and boys score higher when assessed for gross motor skills when compared to their female peers,” Dr. Sharifa Glass, MD, national board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and owner of pediatric and lactation consultant clinical practice Vine Pediatrics, explains. Freilich says basically the same thing, adding that while girls may develop fine motor and language skills earlier, “boys do eventually catch up, and by 3 years of age, may be noted to show cognitive skills that require visual-spatial integration that are better than girls of the same age.”
However, this isn’t just because of their gender. “One research study showed that parental perception and influence may be a significant factor for their gender difference,” Glass says. In other words: boys and girls being raised differently because of their gender could be the reasoning behind this. The study Glass references shows that parents were more likely to promote intense physical play with boys, while they were also more likely to encourage girls to do individual play with toys, like drawing.
Physical growth between boys & girls
When it comes to physical growth, you will more than likely see a difference in the two genders, especially during infancy and then again in adolescence. Freilich says that weight, length, and head circumference are greater in boys than in girls during that first year of life. “This is believed to be related to hormonal differences between boys and girls in this early stage of life,” he explains.
Up until adolescence, he says that boys and girls will grow in height at about the same rate. But once they reach age 8 or 9, things become different again. Glass notes that this is around the time girls will have a growth spurt, while boys will not. “Boys start puberty on average about one year later than girls,” she says. “So, parents may notice that girls are growing faster than boys during the higher elementary school grades. Males will eventually catch up to their female peers, and some boys may continue to grow in height about six months to one year longer than girls.”
Verbal skills between boys & girls
There is some research that shows that boys develop language skills later than girls do, but Glass notes that this idea is “controversial.” She says that some of the research has found that boys are later talkers because of sex hormones. Some researchers say that a larger amount of testosterone is responsible for the difference in language development.
“Other medical research has concluded that factors such as cultural norms and wider variability in language and cognitive development amongst boys gives false perception that boys speak later than girls,” Glass says. So, again, it’s hard to say if girls develop verbal skills faster simply because they are females, or because of the way they are raised.
Potty training differences between boys & girls
You’ve probably heard that girls are easier to potty train than boys. And, according to Freilich, Glass, and Dopwell, this one may actually be true. All three doctors noted that, on average, girls are known to be potty trained earlier than boys, and that girls are less likely to wet the bed than boys. They also all noted that there’s no scientific evidence on why this happens, and, once again, it’s unclear whether this is due to how they are raised.
When should parents be concerned about a child’s development?
Parents are always told not to compare their child’s development to another child’s development because everyone is different, but let’s be honest: this is a lot easier said than done. It’s easy to stress over whether or not your child is being left behind, but Freilich notes that parents should never expect all girls or all boys to conform to the average developmental differences between boys and girls because it’s not as simple as what gender they are born into. “The brain has a remarkable plasticity. Multiple factors influence how and why the brain develops,” he says. “Genetic and hormonal factors are in play from the very start, but cannot account for all the subtle differences that can be seen in the development of boys and girls.”
As previously noted, a child’s exposure to certain situations and the way they are raised will heavily influence how they develop. “Every child has their own developmental journey,” Freilich says. “Some children will develop skill mastery in a specific domain of development before they start to master skills in another domain expected for that age. Other children will master skills in all domains at the same time.”
This makes sense, but also makes it harder for parents to know when they should be concerned about how their child is developing. If you think something is wrong, you should always feel free to speak up. “I always advise parents to contact their general pediatrician or developmental pediatrician, if applicable, to discuss concerns when they arise,” Dopwell says. “A child’s parent knows and observes their child more frequently than we do, and their concerns should not be dismissed.” Push the subject if necessary, or consider seeing a different pediatrician if you feel yours isn’t being helpful.
Glass points out some “red flags” that may indicate delayed development. According to her, these include, “A child that cannot stand with support by 12 months old, no spoken words by 18 months, no phrases by 2 years of age, and no peer interaction by 4 years old.” If your child doesn’t hit these milestones, it doesn’t immediately mean something is wrong with them — remember, every journey is different. But it is worth bringing them up with their pediatrician during well visits.
Dr. Mark Freilich, developmental pediatrician and founder/medical director at Total Kids Developmental Pediatric Resources