Failure to thrive may be caused by medical problems or factors in the child’s environment, such as abuse or neglect.
There are many medical causes of failure to thrive. These include:
Problems with genes such as Down syndrome
Damage to the brain or central nervous system, which may cause feeding difficulties in an infant
Heart or lung problems, which can affect how nutrients move through the body
Anemia or other blood disorders
Gastrointestinal problems that make it hard to absorb nutrients or cause a lack of digestive enzymes
Long-term (chronic) infections
Problems during pregnancy or low birth weight
Factors in the child’s environment include:
Loss of emotional bond between parent and child
Problems with child-caregiver relationship
Parents do not understand the appropriate diet needs for their the child
Exposure to infections, parasites, or toxins
Poor eating habits, such as eating in front of the television and not having formal meal times
Many times the cause cannot be determined.
Children who fail to thrive do not grow and develop normally as compared to children of the same age.They seem to be much smaller or shorter. Teenagers may not have the usual changes that occur at puberty.
Treatment depends on the cause of the delayed growth and development. Delayed growth due to nutritional problems can be helped by showing the parents how to provide a well-balanced diet.
Do not give your child dietary supplements such as Boost or Ensure without talking to your health care provider first.
Other treatment depends on how severe the condition is. The following may be recommended:
Increase the number of calories and amount of fluid the infant receives
Correct any vitamin or mineral deficiencies
Identify and treat any other medical conditions
The child may need to stay in the hospital for a little while.
Treatment may also involve improving the family relationships and living conditions.
Normal growth and development may be affected if a child fails to thrive for a long time.
Normal growth and development may continue if the child has failed to thrive for a short time, and the cause is determined and treated.
Permanent mental, emotional, or physical delays can occur.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if your child does not seem to be developing normally.
Regular checkups can help detect failure to thrive in children.
McLean HS, Price DT. Failure to thrive. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme JW III, et al., eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 38.
Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.