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Failure to thrive

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 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 determine the underlying reason.

Who’s at risk?

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

Conditions such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, or cystic fibrosis can be a cause, as can infections. In addition, conditions affecting the gut, like celiac disease, milk intolerance or allergy, and reflux can also lead to failure to thrive.

Aside 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 miss important developmental 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 check-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 other conditions, such as developmental ones.

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 about 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 pediatrician, a dietician, or a range of therapists. Medications, nutritional supplements, and dietary support can be utilized.

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

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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