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Failure to thrive

Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger HendersonReviewed on 29.04.2024 | 2 minutes read

Failure to thrive describes when a child is not growing or developing as they should. It is commonly diagnosed in babies and toddlers, when they haven’t met the height or weight we would expect for their age, compared to the national average.

It’s more of a symptom than a condition, and requires a bit of investigation to work out what the underlying reason might be.

Who’s at risk?

Children who have serious medical conditions can develop failure to thrive. If a child is born prematurely or is born with a low birth weight, this may lead to them failing to thrive.

Conditions cerebral palsy, Down syndrome or cystic fibrosis can affect them, as can infections. In addition, conditions affecting the gut like coeliac disease, milk intolerance or allergy and reflux can also lead to failure to thrive.

Away from physical health conditions, mental and emotional abuse or neglect, as well as psychological conditions like depression and external factors like poverty can affect a child’s ability to meet their developmental needs and thrive.

What are the symptoms?

If you notice your child is not gaining weight or they are gradually or rapidly losing weight, this is a clear indication. Other symptoms can be harder to pinpoint, like tiredness and irritability. They may be missing important development milestones, such as crawling and talking, using a cup to drink, or even failing to smile and laugh at the expected age. They may develop learning disabilities as they get older. 

When should I take them to the doctor?

If you have any concerns regarding your baby’s growth, it is best to speak to your health visitor or doctor so they can arrange regular checks-ups to plot their growth and monitor their overall health. If your doctor is worried about underlying causes, they can refer your child for further tests, looking for infections or any other conditions such as developmental conditions.

They will ask about your child’s health, but also a bit about how things are at home and any particular stressors. Be open and honest with this, as there may be ways that they can help.

How is failure to thrive treated?

If the underlying condition is identified, managing that condition can help resolve the failure to thrive with the help of specialists like a children’s doctor or a dietician or a range of therapists. Medications, nutritional supplements and dietary support can be utilised.

If you are having difficulties at home – financial difficulties with providing the right nutritious food or home environment, for example – there may be local schemes or community centres that you can be referred to to help get them back on track.

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 29.04.2024
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