What Causes Failure to Thrive?

Medically reviewed by Karen Gill, MD on September 26, 2019 Written by Marissa Selner

A child is said to have failure to thrive when they don’t meet recognized standards of growth. Failure to thrive isn’t a disease or disorder. Rather, it describes a situation in which a child is undernourished. They either don’t receive or are... Read More

Overview

A child is said to have failure to thrive when they don’t meet recognized standards of growth. Failure to thrive isn’t a disease or disorder. Rather, it describes a situation in which a child is undernourished. They either don’t receive or are unable to process enough calories.

An example of failure to thrive would be a child who’s persistently below the standard weight range for their age. Typically, a doctor will diagnose failure to thrive during a child’s infant years.

A doctor determines a child’s ideal weight range by comparing their weight, height, age, and sex to national averages. Children who fail to thrive usually fall well below their ideal weight. A child may also receive the diagnosis if their growth rate in terms of weight, often along with height, stalls when it should be on an upward trend.

Is my child at risk?

Risk factors for a child failing to thrive include underlying conditions, such as:

Children who have serious medical problems during the early years of their life can develop failure to thrive. Children who are born prematurely and have low birth weight may also fail to thrive.

The most common cause of failure to thrive is not taking in enough calories. Other risk factors that may contribute to poor nutrition include:

What are the symptoms of failure to thrive?

Generally, an affected child’s weight falls below the 3rd percentile on standard growth charts. A change in the rate of growth, rather than specific numbers, is also an indicator. For example, if your child has been growing well but their growth stagnates, they may have failure to thrive.

Your child may have an unsteady rate of growth. Some children who fail to thrive exhibit the following symptoms:

When should I see a doctor?

Regular checkups can prevent failure to thrive, or at least catch and address it early. These should begin during your pregnancy and continue through adulthood. Your doctor should regularly plot your child’s growth on growth charts.

A child with failure to thrive may be small compared to other children of the same age and sex. Their growth pattern may not be steady. Have regular checkups with a pediatrician to get the most accurate analysis of your child’s growth.

Because failure to thrive can lead to permanent mental, emotional, and physical delays, it’s important to have regular checkups so doctors can monitor your child’s health.

How is failure to thrive diagnosed?

Tests can help look for a cause and assess the effects of failure to thrive on your child’s health and growth. These may include:

  • blood tests
  • urine tests
  • X-rays
  • developmental screenings

Caregivers may need counseling if the doctor suspects that unhealthy practices in the family are a cause.

Ask your doctor for a chart that lists ideal height and weight ranges for children to help monitor your child’s growth. These are recommended for children between the ages of 2 and 20.

What are the treatment options for failure to thrive?

Treatment options vary depending on the:

  • severity of symptoms
  • overall health of the child
  • preferences of parents or caretakers
  • family environment
  • cause of condition

Some cases of failure to thrive may be resolvable once a doctor treats the underlying condition. If failure to thrive requires further care, the child’s doctor may prescribe nutritional supplements or a special diet based on the underlying diagnosis.

When failure to thrive has a connection to problems at home, your doctor may consult social services. Hospital care, including the use of feeding tubes, can provide extra nourishment in severe cases.

After your child’s growth has reached normal levels, they may need help to keep physical and mental growth on track. Specialists who can help your child include:

What’s the long-term outlook?

If your child receives treatment early, they should be able to grow normally, barring any serious medical issues. Failure to thrive that’s not treated can result in long-term complications, including:

  • learning disabilities
  • emotional problems
  • restricted growth

If you notice that your child is having difficulty eating, or seems to be losing weight or not gaining weight as you think they should, consult your doctor. Talking to your doctor early on can alleviate your fears and get your child on the road to proper health and nutrition.

Medically reviewed by Karen Gill, MD on September 26, 2019 Written by Marissa Selner

7 possible conditions

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.

Medically reviewed by Karen Gill, MD on September 26, 2019 Recently UpdatedWritten by Marissa Selner