For development of embryo dunes on the highly dynamic land–sea boundary, summer growth and the absence of winter erosion are essential. Other than that, however, we know little about the specific conditions that favour embryo dune development. This study explores the boundary conditions for early dune development to enable better predictions of natural dune expansion. Using a 30 year time series of aerial photographs of 33 sites along the Dutch coast, we assessed the influence of beach morphology (beach width and tidal range), meteorological conditions (storm characteristics, wind speed, growing season precipitation, and temperature), and sand nourishment on early dune development. We examined the presence and area of embryo dunes in relation to beach width and tidal range, and compared changes in embryo dune area to meteorological conditions and whether sand nourishment had been applied. We found that the presence and area of embryo dunes increased with increasing beach width. Over time, embryo dune area was negatively correlated with storm intensity and frequency. Embryo dune area was positively correlated with precipitation in the growing season and sand nourishment. Embryo dune area increased in periods of low storm frequency and in wet summers, and decreased in periods of high storm frequency or intensity. We conclude that beach morphology is highly influential in determining the potential for new dune development, and wide beaches enable development of larger embryo dune fields. Sand nourishment stimulates dune development by increasing beach width. Finally, weather conditions and non-interrupted sequences of years without high-intensity storms determine whether progressive dune development will take place.