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Failure to thrive

failure to thrive

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‘Failing to Thrive’ – these three little words can carry enormous meaning and strike fear into the hearts of parents. The phrase essentially refers to any child that has a current weight, or rate of gaining weight, that is much lower than average for their age and gender.

Causes of Failure to Thrive

There are numerous reasons why a child may suffer delayed developmental progress. Examples of common medical causes are:

  • Genetic issues
  • Hormone problems
  • Organ problems
  • Heart and lung complaints that may affect nutrient flows in the body
  • Brain or nervous system damage – which can lead to feeding issues in infants
  • Gastrointestinal issues that make it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients
  • Anaemia or other disorders of the blood

Environmental factors can also play a role, with the following conditions possibly leading to a failure to thrive:

  • Poverty
  • Damage to the parent/child emotional bond
  • An exposure to toxins, parasites or infections
  • Poor eating habits resulting in a lack of proper and sustained nutrition


A child who is failing to thrive is not growing according to normal expectations. They may not be as tall, their body mass may fall short of the averages expected for a child of a similar age and gender. In order to determine a failure to thrive, medical practitioners use a variety of measures and tests including:

1. Physical measurements – they take weight, height and other measurements, such as the circumference of the abdomen or head and compare these with standard growth charts. It is generally considered cause for concern; if a child’s weight is 20% or more below the ideal weight for their height. In some instances, measurements may suggest that growth has slowed down or stopped altogether

2. Developmental indicators – all children develop at different rates, but a child who is failing to thrive may fall significantly behind on a number of developmental milestones, such as learning to roll over, sit or stand independently and walk. Social, mental and emotional skills can also be less developed. And in adolescents, a prolonged delay in the onset of puberty may indicated a ‘failure to thrive’

3. General symptoms – these usually occur in conjunction with the above, and as reported by parents: excessive crying and fussiness, unusual levels of irritability, lethargy and sleepiness; and constipation

How Failure the Thrive is Diagnosed

failure to thriveAlong with the data collated from the above symptoms, Doctors may conduct additional tests. You may also be asked for your child’s and family’s medical history, so Doctors can build a picture of what may be behind the problem. Extra tests may include:

  • A Complete Blood Count (also known as CBC)
  • Urine tests
  • Hormone tests – including thyroid function
  • Balance of electrolyte
  • Haemoglobin electrophoresis
  • X-rays to ascertain the age of your child’s bones

Treatments for Failure to Thrive

The treatment selected for a child who is failing to thrive will depend on the cause of their condition. Growth delays caused by nutritional problems, for example, can be addressed by a change in diet. If there is vitamin or mineral deficiency that could be causing the symptoms, supplements may be prescribed. In the case where low calorific intake is identified as the issue, a controlled increase in calorie and fluid intake may be the answer.

Of course, in some instances it is an underlying medical condition that may be causing the failure to thrive. In these instances it is vital that this medical condition itself is treated. In some cases it may be recommended that a child stay in hospital for a while.

Provided the cause of the failure to thrive is identified and the condition is treated swiftly, a short-term ‘failure to thrive’ should not result in any long-term mental, emotional or physical damage. If, however, failure to thrive continues for a prolonged period and is left untreated, normal development and physical growth can become affected. If you are at all worried about the development of your child then contact your Doctor for guidance.



About Cally Worden

About Cally Worden

Seasoned freelance writer Cally Worden lives with her family and dog in a quiet corner of rural France. A love of the outdoors, and a fascination with her children's ability to view life with fresh eyes provide the inspiration for much of her work. Cally writes regularly for various websites and UK print publications on subjects as diverse as parenting, travel, lifestyle, and business, and anything that makes her smile.

Website: Cally Worden

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