Failure-to-thrive is when a child is not growing as expected. It does not include children who are small for their age. Definitions of failure-to-thrive may vary.
Children grow quickly in the first few years of life. A child with failure-to-thrive will usually have a height and weight that is well below other children of their age. Your child may have also had a normal growth pattern that began to slow down. Initially, the child has similar height and weight than their peers but at follow-up appointments the child's height and weight does not keep up with their peers.
Growth is assessed at health visits by measuring height, weight, and head circumference. This information is entered into a growth chart, which makes a line or curve that follows how your child grows. Standard curve lines on the chart called percentiles show where babies fall in terms of normal growth compared to other babies at specific ages. Failure-to-thrive can occur when a child:
- Is at or below the third to fifth percentile for height and weight.
- Has failed to grow as expected. This is shown by crossing 2 percentile lines on the growth chart.
Failure-to-thrive is split into 3 different types. These types include:
- Organic—caused by some medical condition
- Nonorganic—occurs in children with no known medical condition
- Mixed—occurs when the child has features of both
Failure-to-thrive is caused by a lack of nutrition. The most common causes of lack of nutrition include:
- Inadequate food intake
- Malabsorption—inability of the intestines to properly absorb nutrients from food
- Loss of nutrients, which may occur from excessive vomiting or diarrhea
- Inability to process nutrients correctly
- Increased energy expenditure
Failure-to-thrive is more common in boys. Many factors may contribute to an increased chance of developing failure-to-thrive in children, including:
- Genetic disorders, such as cystic fibrosis, Down Syndrome, or Turner syndrome
- Physical defects, such as cleft lip or palate which interfere with feeding
- Gastrointestinal diseases, such as:
- Chronic or untreated urinary tract infections
- Kidney failure
- Undiagnosed food intolerance
- Heart and lung diseases, such as:
- Endocrine diseases, such as diabetes, or thyroid or pituitary gland disorders
- Chronic or congenital infectious diseases such as HIV or toxoplasmosis
- Fetal alcohol syndrome
- Lead poisoning
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Family and social factors may include:
- Reduced availability of food
- Giving non-nutritious foods
- Withholding food
- Breastfeeding difficulties
- Depression in the parent
- Lack of knowledge about proper nutrition and typical child growth patterns
- Parent and child interaction or attachment problems
- Lack of social support for the parent(s)
- Severe family stress
- Child abuse or neglect
Failure-to-thrive may cause:
- Slowed growth in a young child, including height and weight
- Slowed development, including late rolling, sitting, crawling, standing, walking, and talking
- Small muscles
- Weakness, low energy
- Hair loss
- Loose folds of skin
- Other symptoms related to an underlying medical condition
Failure-to-thrive is diagnosed based on following a child's growth. Your child's weight, height, and head circumference will be plotted on standard growth charts. If the child falls below a certain weight range or crosses 2 lines on the growth chart, the doctor will evaluate the child further.
Based on your child's symptoms, additional tests may be ordered.
Rarely, a child must be hospitalized for a period of time to find the cause of failure-to-thrive. During this time, the doctor will:
- Monitor the relationship between parent and child, paying particular attention to their behavior around feeding
- Set up a feeding schedule with an adequate amount of calories
- Make sure that an appropriate feeding technique is used
This will also be done in an outpatient setting and often require referrals to feeding specialists.
If your child can gain weight under these circumstances and no underlying disease is found, this supports the diagnosis of nonorganic failure-to-thrive.
Treatment will depend on what is causing a child's failure-to-thrive. Options may include:
Treating a Medical Condition
Treating the underlying medical condition may correct failure-to-thrive.
Providing Extra Calories
Children who are malnourished may need a dietary supplement. These may include nutritional drinks, milk fortifiers, and other ways to add calories to food. They help improve nutrition and boost growth.
When a child is hospitalized for diagnosis, the hospital staff can also provide treatment. Nurses can teach parents appropriate feeding techniques. They may also show how to best interact with their child. If the child isn't hospitalized, parents can still have training sessions with a nutritionist or a nurse.
Parents and children who are having difficulty with their relationship may benefit from counseling.
To help reduce your child's chance of developing failure-to-thrive:
- Take your children to the doctor regularly to have their growth checked. This helps detect and treat failure-to-thrive before it becomes severe.
- Develop a good relationship with your child's doctor.
- Ask the doctor about proper parenting and nutrition for early in a baby's life.
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics
About Kids Health—The Hospital for Sick Children
Public Health Agency of Canada
Failure to thrive. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/parent/growth/growth/failure_thrive.html. Updated November 2014. Accessed September 21, 2017.
Failure to thrive in children. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115801/Failure-to-thrive-in-children. Updated February 20, 2017. Accessed September 21, 2017.
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8/7/2013 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance.http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115801/Failure-to-thrive-in-children: Bocca-Tjeertes IF, van Buuren S, et al. Growth of preterm and full-term children aged 0-4 years: integrating median growth and variability in growth charts. J Pediatr. 2012 Sep;161(3):460-465.
Last reviewed September 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Kari Kassir, MD Last Updated: 9/24/2014