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Failure to Thrive (FTT) in Children

By

Christopher P. Raab

, MD, Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University

Reviewed/Revised Feb 2023
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Topic Resources

Failure to thrive in children is weight consistently below the 3rd to 5th percentile for age and sex, progressive decrease in weight to below the 3rd to 5th percentile, or a decrease in 2 major growth percentiles in a short period of time. The cause may be a medical condition or may be related to environmental factors. All types of failure to thrive relate to inadequate nutrition. Treatment is aimed at restoring proper nutrition.

Etiology of Failure to Thrive in Children

  • Organic FTT

  • Nonorganic FTT

  • Mixed FTT

Most cases of FTT are mixed.

Organic FTT

Growth failure is due to an acute or chronic disorder that interferes with nutrient intake, absorption, metabolism, or excretion or that increases energy requirements (see table ). Illness of any organ system can be a cause.

Children with organic FTT may present at any age depending on the underlying disorder.

Table

Nonorganic FTT

Nonorganic FTT is due to insufficient calorie intake. It usually manifests first as failure to gain weight. Growth in length and head circumference remain normal for a period of time until they too become impacted by poor calorie intake. This is the most common pattern of nonorganic FTT. Most children with nonorganic FTT manifest growth failure before age 1 year and many by age 6 months.

When nonorganic FTT is caused by psychologic factors, growth failure accompanies or precedes poor weight gain. This is thought to occur because mental stress in the child may cause increased levels of counter-regulatory hormones (eg, corticosteroids, catecholamines), which oppose the effects of growth hormone.

Up to 80% of children with growth failure do not have an apparent growth-inhibiting (organic) disorder; growth failure occurs because of environmental neglect (eg, lack of food), stimulus deprivation, or both.

Lack of food may be due to

  • Poverty

  • Poor understanding of feeding techniques

  • Improperly prepared formula (eg, overdiluting formula to stretch it because of financial difficulties)

  • Inadequate supply of breast milk (eg, because the mother is under stress, exhausted, or poorly nourished)

Nonorganic FTT is often due to disordered interactions between a child and caregiver. In some cases, the psychologic basis of nonorganic FTT seems similar to that which occurs in infants who are hospitalized for an extended period who develop depression secondary to stimulus deprivation. The unstimulated child becomes depressed, apathetic, and ultimately anorexic. Stimulation may be lacking because the caregiver

  • Is depressed or apathetic

  • Has poor parenting skills

  • Is anxious about or unfulfilled by the caregiver role

  • Feels hostile toward the child

  • Is responding to real or perceived external stresses (eg, demands of other children in large or chaotic families, marital dysfunction, a significant loss, financial difficulties)

Poor caregiving does not fully account for all cases of nonorganic FTT. The child’s temperament, capacities, and responses help shape caregiver nurturance patterns. Common scenarios involve parent-child mismatches, in which the child’s demands (eg, a difficult feeder), although not pathologic, cannot be adequately met by the parents, who might, however, do well with a child who has different needs or even with the same child under different circumstances. A difficult feeder may uncover a problem with parent-child interaction that would have remained hidden if the child were an easy feeder.

Mixed FTT

In mixed FTT, organic and nonorganic causes can overlap. For example, children with organic disorders also have disturbed environments or dysfunctional parental interactions. Likewise, children with severe undernutrition caused by nonorganic FTT can develop organic medical problems.

Diagnosis of Failure to Thrive in Children

  • Frequent weight monitoring

  • Thorough medical, family, and social history

  • Diet history

  • Laboratory testing

Age should be plotted against weight, height, and head size on growth standards and growth charts, such as those recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (For children 0 to 2 years, see WHO Growth Charts; for children 2 years and older, see CDC Growth Charts.) Until premature infants reach 2 years of age, age should be corrected for gestation.

Weight is the most sensitive indicator of nutritional status. Another useful measure of undernutrition includes a body mass index (BMI) Z-score of less than -2 (ie, 2 standard deviations below the mean BMI). When FTT is due to inadequate caloric intake, weight falls from the baseline percentile before length does.

Reduced linear growth usually indicates severe, prolonged undernutrition. Simultaneous fall off of length or height and weight suggests a primary disorder of growth or a prolonged inflammatory state.

Usually, when growth failure is noted, a history (including diet history—see table ) is obtained, diet counseling is provided, and the child’s weight is monitored frequently.

Careful examination of the growth chart can lend clues to the diagnosis. For example, if the weight and height fall off simultaneously, a diagnosis of an organic disease is likely. Without historic or physical evidence of a specific underlying etiology for growth failure, no single clinical feature or test can reliably distinguish organic from nonorganic FTT. Because children may have both organic and nonorganic FTT, the physician should search simultaneously for an underlying physical problem and for personal, family, and child-family characteristics that support a psychosocial etiology.

Optimally, evaluation is multidisciplinary, involving a physician, a nurse, a social worker, a nutritionist, an expert in child development, and often a psychiatrist or psychologist. The child’s feeding behaviors with health care practitioners and with the parents must be observed, whether the setting is inpatient or outpatient. A child who does not gain weight satisfactorily in spite of outpatient assessment and intervention usually is admitted to the hospital so that all necessary observations can be made and diagnostic tests can be done quickly.

During hospitalization, the child’s interaction with people in the environment is closely observed, and evidence of self-stimulatory behaviors (eg, rocking, head banging) is noted. Some children with nonorganic FTT have been described as hypervigilant and wary of close contact with people, preferring interactions with inanimate objects if they interact at all. Although nonorganic FTT is more consistent with neglectful than abusive parenting, the child should be examined closely for evidence of abuse Symptoms and Signs Child maltreatment includes all types of abuse and neglect of a child under the age of 18 by a parent, caregiver, or another person in a custodial role (eg, clergy, coach, teacher) that results... read more Symptoms and Signs . A screening test of developmental level should be done and, if indicated, followed with more sophisticated assessment. Hospitalized children who begin gaining weight well with proper feeding techniques, formula preparation, and amount of calories are more likely to have nonorganic FTT.

Engaging the parents as co-investigators is essential. It helps foster their self-esteem and avoids blaming parents who may already feel frustrated or guilty because of a perceived inability to nurture their child. For hospitalized children, the family should be encouraged to visit as often and as long as possible. Staff members should make them feel welcome, support their attempts to feed the child, and provide toys and ideas that promote parent-child play and other interactions.

Parental adequacy and sense of responsibility should be evaluated. Suspected neglect or abuse must be reported to social services, but in many instances, referral for preventive services that are targeted to meet the family’s needs for support and education (eg, additional food stamps, more accessible child care, parenting classes) is more appropriate.

Table

Testing

Extensive laboratory testing is usually nonproductive. If a thorough history or physical examination does not indicate a particular cause, most experts recommend limiting screening tests to

  • Complete blood count with differential

  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate

  • Blood urea nitrogen and serum creatinine and electrolyte levels

  • Urinalysis (including ability to concentrate and acidify) and culture

  • Stool for pH, reducing substances, odor, color, consistency, and fat content

Depending on prevalence of specific disorders in the community, blood lead level, HIV, or tuberculosis testing may be warranted.

Newborn screening test results should be reviewed for indications of other genetic diseases. Additionally, even though newborn screening tests now assess newborns for cystic fibrosis Newborn screening Cystic fibrosis is an inherited disease of the exocrine glands affecting primarily the gastrointestinal and respiratory systems. It leads to chronic lung disease, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency... read more Newborn screening , a sweat test should be done if the child has a history of recurrent upper or lower respiratory tract disease, a ravenous appetite, foul-smelling bulky stools, hepatomegaly, or a family history of cystic fibrosis.

Testing for endocrine disorders that can impact growth is sometimes appropriate. Hyperthyroidism Hyperthyroidism in Infants and Children Hyperthyroidism is excessive thyroid hormone production. Diagnosis is by thyroid function testing (eg, free serum thyroxine, thyroid-stimulating hormone). Treatment is with methimazole and sometimes... read more may result in weight loss. Testing includes determining levels of thyroxine (T4) and thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). Growth hormone assessment Diagnosis Growth hormone deficiency is the most common pituitary hormone deficiency in children and can be isolated or accompanied by deficiency of other pituitary hormones. Growth hormone deficiency... read more (done by measuring fasting blood levels of insulin-like growth factor 1 [IGF-1] and IGF binding protein type 3 [IGFBP-3]) is appropriate when growth in height is more severely affected than growth in weight or when height/length and weight fall off simultaneously.

Testing for celiac disease Diagnosis Celiac disease is an immunologically mediated disease in genetically susceptible people caused by intolerance to gluten, resulting in mucosal inflammation and villous atrophy, which causes malabsorption... read more Diagnosis may be done as part of the initial evaluation. Testing may include the serologic marker anti-tissue transglutaminase antibody (tTG) and the anti-endomysial antibody (EMA) and sometimes small-bowel biopsy.

Investigation for infectious diseases should be reserved for children with evidence of infection (eg, fever, vomiting, cough, diarrhea); however, a urine culture may be helpful because some children with FTT due to urinary tract infection lack other symptoms and signs.

Radiologic investigation should be reserved for children with evidence of anatomic or functional pathology (eg, pyloric stenosis, gastroesophageal reflux). However, if an endocrine cause is suspected, bone age is sometimes determined.

Treatment of Failure to Thrive in Children

  • Sufficient nutrition

  • Treatment of underlying disorder

  • Long-term social support

Treatment of failure to thrive is aimed at providing sufficient health and environmental resources to promote satisfactory growth.

A nutritious diet containing adequate calories for catch-up growth (about 150% of normal caloric requirement) and individualized medical and social supports are usually necessary.

Ability to gain weight in the hospital does not always differentiate infants with nonorganic FTT from those with organic FTT; all children grow when given sufficient nutrition. However, some children with nonorganic FTT lose weight in the hospital, highlighting the complexity of this condition.

For children with organic or mixed FTT, the underlying disorder should be treated quickly.

For children with apparent nonorganic FTT or mixed FTT, management includes provision of education and emotional support to correct problems interfering with the parent-child relationship. Because long-term social support or psychiatric treatment is often required, the evaluation team may be able only to define the family’s needs, provide initial instruction and support, and institute appropriate referrals to community agencies. The parents should understand why the referrals are being made and, if options exist, should participate in decisions concerning which agencies will be involved. If the child is hospitalized in a tertiary care center, the referring physician should be consulted regarding local agencies and the level of expertise available in the community.

A predischarge planning conference involving hospital-based personnel, representatives from the community agencies that will provide follow-up services, and the child’s primary physician is ideal. Areas of responsibility and lines of accountability must be clearly defined, preferably in writing, and distributed to everyone involved. The parents should be invited to a summary session after the conference so that they can meet the community workers, ask questions, and arrange follow-up appointments.

In some cases, the child must be placed in foster care. If the child is expected to eventually return to the biologic parents, parenting skill training and psychologic counseling must be provided for them. Their child’s progress must be monitored scrupulously. Return to the biologic parents should be based on the parents’ demonstrated ability to care for the child adequately, not only on the passage of time.

Prognosis for Failure to Thrive in Children

Prognosis for organic FTT depends on the cause.

With nonorganic FTT, the majority of children age > 1 year achieve a stable weight above the 3rd percentile with appropriate management.

Children who develop any type of FTT before age 1 year are at high risk of cognitive delay, especially verbal and math skills. Children diagnosed at age < 6 months, when the rate of postnatal brain growth is maximal, are at highest risk.

General behavioral problems, identified by teachers or mental health practitioners, occur in about 50% of children. Problems specifically related to eating (eg, pickiness, slowness) or elimination tend to occur in a similar proportion of children, usually those with other behavioral or personality disturbances.

Key Points

  • Failure to thrive (FTT) is weight consistently below the 3rd to 5th percentile for age and sex, progressive decrease in weight to below the 3rd to 5th percentile, or a decrease in 2 major growth percentiles in a short period.

  • Organic FTT is due to a medical disorder (eg, malabsorption, inborn error of metabolism).

  • Nonorganic FTT is due to psychosocial problems (eg, neglect, poverty, difficult parent-child interactions).

  • In addition to taking a thorough medical, social, and dietary history, health care providers should observe parents/caregivers feeding the child.

  • Hospitalization may be necessary to evaluate the child, to observe the child's response to appropriate feeding, and to involve a feeding team if needed.

More Information

The following English-language resources may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of these resources.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Drug Name Select Trade
Aluvea , BP-50% Urea , BP-K50, Carmol, CEM-Urea, Cerovel, DermacinRx Urea, Epimide-50, Gord Urea, Gordons Urea, Hydro 35 , Hydro 40, Kerafoam, Kerafoam 42, Keralac, Keralac Nailstik, Keratol, Keratol Plus, Kerol, Kerol AD, Kerol ZX, Latrix, Mectalyte, Nutraplus, RE Urea 40, RE Urea 50 , Rea Lo, Remeven, RE-U40, RYNODERM , U40, U-Kera, Ultra Mide 25, Ultralytic-2, Umecta, Umecta Nail Film, URALISS, Uramaxin , Uramaxin GT, Urea, Ureacin-10, Ureacin-20, Urealac , Ureaphil, Uredeb, URE-K , Uremez-40, Ure-Na, Uresol, Utopic, Vanamide, Xurea, X-VIATE
Afrezza, Exubera
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NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: View Consumer Version
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