Merck Manual

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Quick Facts

Failure to Thrive

By

The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Dec 2019| Content last modified Dec 2019
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NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
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What is failure to thrive?

Failure to thrive is when a baby or child doesn't grow or gain weight as expected. Babies and children with failure to thrive are underweight, lose weight, or stop growing at their expected rate.

Failure to thrive can lead to long-term problems with learning, behavior, and growth, especially if it happens during the first year of a baby’s life.

What causes failure to thrive?

Failure to thrive usually happens because children aren't getting enough food. Or the food they’re getting doesn’t have enough of the proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals (nutrients) they need for healthy growth. This can happen because of problems in the family or a medical problem the child has.

Family problems:

  • Neglect or abuse

  • Poverty

  • Parents who are depressed, stressed out, anxious, or have mental problems

  • Parents not understanding how to mix formula or feed babies

  • Chaotic family situation such as homelessness

Medical problems:

What are the symptoms of failure to thrive?

Children with failure to thrive may:

  • Grow slower than they should

  • Lose weight

  • Become quiet and withdrawn

The first year of life is important for brain development. If failure to thrive during this time isn't treated, children may later have:

  • Learning problems in school

  • Behavior and emotional problems

How can doctors tell if my child isn't thriving?

Your child’s doctor will keep a history of height and weight at each doctor visit. They’ll compare your child’s height and weight to:

  • Height and weight recorded on previous doctor visits

  • The usual height and weight for children that age

They suspect failure to thrive if your child isn't growing as expected. Doctors examine your child and ask about your child's eating habits and symptoms.

If your child is getting enough food, doctors do tests to figure out if a medical problem is causing failure to thrive. They usually do:

  • Urine and stool tests

  • Blood tests

  • X-rays

How do doctors treat failure to thrive?

To treat failure to thrive, doctors will:

  • Treat any medical problem that’s causing it

  • Have you give your child plenty of healthy food with enough calories to grow and gain weight

  • Make a feeding schedule for you to follow and help you find resources so you can buy enough food

  • For severe failure to thrive, care for your child in the hospital

Children whose failure to thrive is due to neglect or abuse may need to be placed in foster care.

NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
Click here for the Professional Version

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