Failure to thrive

What is failure to thrive?

Failure to thrive is a term used to describe a child who seems to be gaining weight or height more slowly than other children of his or her age and sex. A baby who has failed to thrive may seem slow to develop physical skills, such as rolling over, standing, and walking. Slow growth also can lead to delays in mental and social skills.

What causes failure to thrive?

Failure to thrive can be caused by medical conditions, such as anemia or thyroid problems. Some children do not thrive as expected because they do not get enough to eat or they have emotional problems. A child who has poor eating habits, such as eating in front of the TV or not having set meal times, may have stunted growth.

Not getting enough nutrients is the immediate cause of failure to thrive, but the ultimate cause may be complicated and hard to determine. Failure to thrive may indicate caregiver depression or another mental health problem that makes it difficult for the caregiver to interpret or respond to the child's needs.

How is it treated?

If your child's failure to thrive is caused by a medical condition, your doctor may be able to treat the condition. That may be enough to help your child begin to gain weight at a normal rate. If your child has emotional problems or has been affected by conditions at home, treatment may need to include counseling and improving the home situation.

Your doctor may recommend that your child receive nutritional therapy in the hospital. Your child may be able to develop at a normal rate if the period of failure to thrive has been short.

When should I call a doctor?

Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if:

  • Your child has trouble breathing.
  • Your child faints.

Call your doctor for an appointment if:

  • Your child seems to be losing weight.
  • Your child is weak or listless.
  • Your child does not begin to thrive as expected.
  • Your child has any new symptoms.

Last Updated: December 29, 2008

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