What is failure to thrive?

Failure to thrive in children: Overview

Failure to thrive is a medical term. It describes a child who gains weight or height more slowly than other children.

A baby who has failed to thrive may be slow to develop physical skills. The baby may roll over, stand, or walk later than other children do. In some cases, slow physical development leads to mental and social delays.

Failure to thrive has different causes. It can be caused by medical problems. These include anemia or thyroid problems. It can also be caused by emotional problems. And in some cases it happens when a child does not get enough to eat. This can happen when food is not available.

If the cause is medical, your doctor may be able to treat that problem. This could help your child gain weight at a normal rate.

If your child has emotional problems or is affected by the conditions at home, treatment may include counseling and improving the home situation. Your doctor may recommend that your child get 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 and your doctor finds and treats the cause.

How is failure to thrive 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.

How can you care for your child who is failing to thrive?

  • If your baby is nursing, talk to your doctor. Make sure that you have enough breast milk. And find out if your baby is nursing well.
  • If your baby is bottle-fed, talk to your doctor about the correct way to prepare the formula. Also, talk with your doctor about ways to give your child more nutrition from the formula.
  • If your child is school-age:
    • Have a regular snack and meal schedule. Most children do well with three meals and two or three snacks a day.
    • Eat as a family as often as you can. Try to enjoy meals together.
    • Be a good role model. Let your child see you eat the food that you want your child to eat.
  • Do not let your child fill up on drinks instead of eating a meal. Try holding the drink back until your child eats some food.
  • If your child is not interested in eating, try to increase your child's physical activity. Limit TV, video games, or computer time.
  • Do not use food as a reward for success or good behavior.
  • If your doctor recommends meeting with a dietitian or counselor, go to your appointments. You may need a series of visits.
  • If you or your child is not getting enough food, ask your doctor about programs such as WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), food banks, and food pantries.

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 may also 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 point to caregiver depression or another mental health problem that makes it hard for the caregiver to interpret or respond to the child's needs.

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 the same 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.

Failure to thrive in children: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think your child may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • Your child stops breathing, turns blue, or becomes unconscious. Follow instructions given by emergency services while you wait for help.
  • Your child has severe trouble breathing. Signs may include the chest sinking in, using belly muscles to breathe, or nostrils flaring while your child is struggling to breathe.
  • Your child passes out (loses consciousness).

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child is weak or has no energy.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your child seems to be losing weight.
  • Your child does not start to thrive as expected.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.