Failure to thrive

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Failure to thrive
Other namesFaltering weight, weight faltering[1]
CDC growth chart boys birth to 36 mths cj41c017.pdf
Standard growth chart for boys age 0-36 months

Failure to thrive (FTT) indicates insufficient weight gain or inappropriate weight loss in pediatric patients unless the term is more precisely defined.[1] In children, it is usually defined in terms of weight, and can be evaluated either by a low weight for the child's age, or by a low rate of increase in the weight.[2]

The term "failure to thrive" has been used vaguely and in different contexts to refer to different issues in pediatric growth.[3] It is most commonly used to describe a failure to gain weight, but some providers have also used it to describe a failure to grow, or a failure to grow and to gain weight.[3] As used by pediatricians, it covers poor physical growth of any cause.[4] The term has been used in different ways,[5] and different objective standards have been defined.[6][7] FTT is suggested by a fall in one or more weight centile spaces on a World Health Organization (WHO) growth chart depending on birth weight or when weight is below the 2nd percentile of weight for age irrespective of birth weight.[8][9] In children whose birth weight was between the 9th and 91st percentile FTT is indicated by a drop across 2 or more centile spaces.[8] Weight loss after birth is normal and most babies return to their birth weight by three weeks of age.[8] Clinical assessment for FTT is recommended for babies who lose more than 10% of their birth weight or do not return to their birth weight after three weeks.[8] Failure to thrive is not a disease, but a sign of inadequate nutrition.

In veterinary medicine it is also referred to as ill-thrift.

Signs and symptoms

Failure to thrive occurs in children whose nutritional intake is insufficient for supporting normal growth and weight gain.[4][10][11] Failure to thrive typically presents before two years of age, when growth rates are highest.[11] Parents may express concern about picky eating habits, poor weight gain, or smaller size compared relative to peers of similar age.[10] Physicians often identify failure to thrive during routine office visits, when a child's growth parameters are not tracking appropriately on growth curves.[10] Physicians look for many signs on physical exam that can indicate a potential cause of FTT. For example, findings such as scaling skin, spoon-shaped nails, cheilosis and neuropathy may indicate potential vitamin and mineral deficiencies.[12] Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) has also been associated with FTT, and can present with characteristic findings including microcephaly, short palpebral fissures, a smooth philtrum and a thin vermillion border.[13] Malabsorption, due to disorders like Crohn's disease and cystic fibrosis, can present with abdominal distention and hyperactive bowel sounds.[12] It is also important to differentiate stunting from wasting, as they can indicate different causes of FTT. "Wasting" refers to a deceleration in stature more than 2 standard deviations from median weight-for-height, whereas "stunting" is a drop of more than 2 standard deviations from the median height-for-age.[14] The characteristic pattern seen with children with inadequate nutritional intake is an initial deceleration in weight gain, followed several weeks to months later by a deceleration in stature, and finally a deceleration in head circumference.[12] A decrease in length with a proportional drop in weight can be related to long-standing nutritional factors as well as genetic or endocrine causes.[12] Head circumference, as well, can be an indicator for the etiology of FTT. If head circumference is affected initially in addition to weight or length, other factors are more likely causes than inadequate intake. Some of these include intrauterine infection, teratogens, and some congenital syndromes.[12]


Traditionally, causes of FTT have been divided into endogenous and exogenous causes. These causes can be largely grouped into three categories: inadequate caloric intake, malabsorption/caloric retention defect, and increased metabolic demands.[15] Initial investigation should consider prenatal history, postnatal history, past medical history, feeding history to assess overall caloric intake, developmental history, family history, and psychosocial history.[4]

Endogenous (or "organic")
Causes are due to physical or mental issues with the child itself. It can include various inborn errors of metabolism. Problems with the gastrointestinal system such as excessive gas and acid reflux are painful conditions which may make the child unwilling to take in sufficient nutrition.[15] Cystic fibrosis,[8] diarrhea, liver disease, anemia or iron deficiency, Crohn's disease, and coeliac disease make it more difficult for the body to absorb nutrition.[8][15] Other causes include physical deformities such as cleft palate and tongue tie. Milk allergies can cause endogenous FTT.[4] FAS has also been associated with failure to thrive.[16] Also the metabolism may be raised by parasites, asthma, urinary tract infections, and other fever-inducing infections, hyperthyroidism or congenital heart disease, so that it becomes difficult to get in sufficient calories to meet the higher caloric demands.[15]
Exogenous (or "nonorganic")
Caused by caregiver's actions. Examples include physical inability to produce enough breastmilk,[15] using only babies' cues to regulate breastfeeding so as to not offer a sufficient number of feeds (sleepy baby syndrome).[17] A recent study on toddlers with exogenous FTT has found preliminary evidence suggesting that difficulty experienced during feeding times with this condition may in fact be impacted by preexisting sensory processing problems.[18] Such difficulties with sensory processing are more commonly observed in toddlers who have a history of growth deficiency and feeding problems; however, further research is required in order to determine a causal relationship between sensory processing problems and nonorganic FTT.[18] In developing countries, conflict settings and protracted emergencies, exogenous faltering may be caused by chronic food insecurity, lack of nutritional awareness, and other factors beyond the caregiver's control.[19] As many as 90% of failure to thrive cases are non-organic.[20]
However, to think of the terms as dichotomous can be misleading, since both endogenous and exogenous factors may co-exist.[11] For instance a child who is not getting sufficient nutrition may act content so that caregivers do not offer feedings of sufficient frequency or volume, and a child with severe acid reflux who appears to be in pain while eating may make a caregiver hesitant to offer sufficient feedings.[11]

Inadequate caloric intake

Malabsorption/caloric retention defect

Increased metabolic demand


FTT may be evaluated through a multifaceted process, beginning with a patient history that notably includes diet history, which is a key element for identifying potential causes of FTT.[3][27] Next, a complete physical examination may be done, with special attention being paid to identifying possible organic sources of FTT.[3] This could include looking for dysmorphic features, abnormal breathing sounds, and signs of specific vitamin and mineral deficiencies.[3] The physical exam may also reveal signs of possible child neglect or abuse.[3] Based on the information gained from the history and physical examination, a workup can then be conducted, in which possible sources of FTT can be further probed through blood work, X-rays, or other tests.[3] Laboratory workup should be directed by concerning history and physical examination findings, as it is estimated that the usefulness of laboratory investigations for children with failure to thrive is 1.4%.[4] Initial bloodwork should be based on the clinical picture of the child. Common bloodwork should include a CBC with differential, a complete metabolic panel to look for electrolyte derangements, a thyroid function test, and a urinalysis.[28] If indicated, anti-TTG IgA antibodies can be used to assess for celiac disease, and a sweat chloride test is used to screen for cystic fibrosis.[28] If no cause is discovered, a stool examination could be indicated to look for fat or reducing substances.[28] C-reactive protein and erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) can also be used look for signs of inflammation.[28]


Infants and children who have had unpleasant eating experiences (e.g. acid reflux or food intolerance) may be reluctant to eat their meals.[27] Additionally, force feeding an infant or child can discourage proper self-feeding practices and in-turn cause undue stress on both the child and their parents.[27] Psychosocial interventions can be targeted at encouraging the child to feed themselves during meals.[8][27] Also, making mealtimes a positive, enjoyable experience through the use of positive reinforcement may improve eating habits in children who present with FTT.[8][27] If behavioral issues persist and are affecting nutritional habits in children with FTT it is recommended that the child see a psychologist.[27] If an underlying condition, such as inflammatory bowel disease, is identified as the cause of the child's failure to thrive then treatment is directed towards the underlying condition.[4] Special care should be taken to avoid refeeding syndrome when initiating feeds in a malnourished patient. Refeeding syndrome is caused by a shift in fluid and electrolytes in a malnourished person as they receive artificial refeeding.[29] It is potentially fatal, and can occur whether receiving enteral or parenteral nutrition.[30] The most serious and common electrolyte abnormality is hypophosphatemia, although sodium abnormalities are common as well. It can also cause changes in glucose, protein, and fat metabolism.[31] Incidence of refeeding syndrome is high, with one prospective cohort study showing 34% of ICU experienced hypophosphatemia soon after feeding was restarted.[32]


Children with failure to thrive are at an increased risk for long-term growth, cognitive, and behavioral complications.[33] Studies have shown that children with failure to thrive during infancy were shorter and lower weight at school-age than their peers. Failure to thrive may also result in children not achieving their growth potential, as estimated by mid-parental height.[33][34] Longitudinal studies have also demonstrated lower IQs (3–5 points) and poorer arithmetic performance in children with a history failure to thrive, compared to peers receiving adequate nutrition as infants and toddlers.[20][35] Early intervention and restoration of adequate nutrition has been shown to reduce the likelihood of long-term sequelae, however, studies have shown that failure to thrive may cause persistent behavioral problems, despite appropriate treatment.[33]


Failure to thrive is a common presenting problem in the pediatric population. Failure to thrive is very prevalent in the United States, representing 5–10% of children seen as outpatients by primary care physicians.[33] Failure to thrive is more prevalent in children of lower socioeconomic status and is associated with lower parental education levels.[33] Failure to thrive accounts for 3–5% of all hospital admissions for children under two years of age.[36][37] Retrospective studies suggest that males are slightly more likely than females to be admitted to the hospital for failure to thrive (53.2% vs. 46.7%).[37]


FTT was first introduced in the early 20th century to describe poor growth in orphan children but became associated with negative implications (such as maternal deprivation) that often incorrectly explained the underlying issues.[38] Throughout the 20th century, FTT was expanded to include many different issues related to poor growth, which made it broadly applicable but non-specific.[38] The current conceptualization of FTT acknowledges the complexity of faltering growth in children and has shed many of the negative stereotypes that plagued previous definitions.[38]

See also


  1. ^ a b Shields B, Wacogne I, Wright CM (September 2012). "Weight faltering and failure to thrive in infancy and early childhood" (PDF). BMJ. 345 (sep25 1): e5931. doi:10.1136/bmj.e5931. PMID 23014901. S2CID 1339246.
  2. ^ "Failure to Thrive: Miscellaneous Disorders in Infants and Children: Merck Manual Professional". Retrieved 2010-03-23.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Al Nofal A, Schwenk WF (December 2013). "Growth failure in children: a symptom or a disease?". Nutrition in Clinical Practice. 28 (6): 651–658. doi:10.1177/0884533613506015. PMID 24170580.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Scholler I, Nittur S (2012-10-01). "Understanding failure to thrive". Paediatrics and Child Health. 22 (10): 438–442. doi:10.1016/j.paed.2012.02.007.
  5. ^ Hughes I (February 2007). "Confusing terminology attempts to define the undefinable". Archives of Disease in Childhood. 92 (2): 97–98. doi:10.1136/adc.2006.108423. PMC 2083328. PMID 17264278.
  6. ^ Raynor P, Rudolf MC (May 2000). "Anthropometric indices of failure to thrive". Archives of Disease in Childhood. 82 (5): 364–365. doi:10.1136/adc.82.5.364. PMC 1718329. PMID 10799424.
  7. ^ Olsen EM, Petersen J, Skovgaard AM, Weile B, Jørgensen T, Wright CM (February 2007). "Failure to thrive: the prevalence and concurrence of anthropometric criteria in a general infant population". Archives of Disease in Childhood. 92 (2): 109–114. doi:10.1136/adc.2005.080333. PMC 2083342. PMID 16531456.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h National Guideline Alliance (UK) (2017). Faltering Growth – recognition and management. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence: Clinical Guidelines. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (UK). ISBN 978-1-4731-2693-0. PMID 28991420.
  9. ^ "Weight-for-age Child growth standards". World Health Organization. Retrieved 2017-11-15.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Zitelli BJ, McIntire SC, Nowalk AJ (2012). Zitelli and Davis' atlas of pediatric physical diagnosis (Sixth ed.). Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saunders/Elsevier. ISBN 978-0-323-07932-7. OCLC 793494374.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Kliegman R, Lye PS, Bordini BJ, Toth H, Basel D (2018). Nelson pediatric symptom-based diagnosis. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. ISBN 978-0-323-39956-2. OCLC 986243536.
  12. ^ a b c d e Needlman, Robert (2007), "Failure to Thrive", Pediatric Clinical Advisor, Elsevier, pp. 201–202, doi:10.1016/b978-032303506-4.10114-2, ISBN 9780323035064
  13. ^ "Pre- and Post-natal Growth Deficiencies and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome". The Embryo Project Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2018-11-23.
  14. ^ "UNICEF - Definitions". Archived from the original on 20 April 2020.
  15. ^ a b c d e Homan GJ (August 2016). "Failure to Thrive: A Practical Guide". American Family Physician. 94 (4): 295–9. PMID 27548594.
  16. ^ "Pre- and Post-natal Growth Deficiencies and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome | The Embryo Project Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2018-12-12.
  17. ^ Habbick BF, Gerrard JW (October 1984). "Failure to thrive in the contented breast-fed baby". Canadian Medical Association Journal. 131 (7): 765–8. PMC 1483563. PMID 6541091.
  18. ^ a b Yi SH, Joung YS, Choe YH, Kim EH, Kwon JY (June 2015). "Sensory Processing Difficulties in Toddlers With Nonorganic Failure-to-Thrive and Feeding Problems". Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition. 60 (6): 819–24. doi:10.1097/mpg.0000000000000707. PMID 25564810. S2CID 19122835.
  19. ^ Prendergast AJ, Humphrey JH (November 2014). "The stunting syndrome in developing countries". Paediatrics and International Child Health. 34 (4): 250–65. doi:10.1179/2046905514Y.0000000158. PMC 4232245. PMID 25310000.
  20. ^ a b Jaffe AC (March 2011). "Failure to thrive: current clinical concepts". Pediatrics in Review. 32 (3): 100–7, quiz 108. doi:10.1542/pir.32-3-100. PMID 21364013.
  21. ^ Patel V, DeSouza N, Rodrigues M (January 2003). "Postnatal depression and infant growth and development in low income countries: a cohort study from Goa, India". Archives of Disease in Childhood. 88 (1): 34–37. doi:10.1136/adc.88.1.34. PMC 1719257. PMID 12495957.
  22. ^ Scholler, Ingo; Nittur, S. (2012-10-01). "Understanding failure to thrive". Paediatrics and Child Health. 22 (10): 438–442. doi:10.1016/j.paed.2012.02.007. ISSN 1751-7222.
  23. ^ Yang, Hye Ran (2017). "How to approach feeding difficulties in young children". Korean Journal of Pediatrics. 60 (12): 379–384. doi:10.3345/kjp.2017.60.12.379. ISSN 1738-1061. PMC 5752637. PMID 29302261.
  24. ^ Høst, Arne (2002-12-01). "Frequency of cow's milk allergy in childhood". Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. 89 (6): 33–37. doi:10.1016/S1081-1206(10)62120-5. ISSN 1081-1206. PMID 12487202.
  25. ^ Wales PW, Christison-Lagay ER (February 2010). "Short bowel syndrome: epidemiology and etiology". Seminars in Pediatric Surgery. 19 (1): 3–9. doi:10.1053/j.sempedsurg.2009.11.001. PMID 20123268.
  26. ^ MENDELSON, E; ABOUDY, Y; SMETANA, Z; TEPPERBERG, M; GROSSMAN, Z (May 2006). "Laboratory assessment and diagnosis of congenital viral infections: Rubella, cytomegalovirus (CMV), varicella-zoster virus (VZV), herpes simplex virus (HSV), parvovirus B19 and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)". Reproductive Toxicology. 21 (4): 350–382. doi:10.1016/j.reprotox.2006.02.001. ISSN 0890-6238. PMID 16564672.
  27. ^ a b c d e f Marchand V (October 2012). "The toddler who is falling off the growth chart". Paediatrics & Child Health. 17 (8): 447–54. doi:10.1093/pch/17.8.447. PMC 3474389. PMID 24082808.
  28. ^ a b c d Ferri, Fred F. (2010), "MANAGING YOUR HUMAN PAPILLOMAVIRUS INFECTION", Ferri's Netter Patient Advisor 2010-2011, Elsevier, pp. 535–536, doi:10.1016/b978-1-4160-6037-6.50271-2, ISBN 9781416060376
  29. ^ "Minerva". BMJ. 336 (7639): 336.2–336. 2008-02-07. doi:10.1136/bmj.39479.508819.80. ISSN 0959-8138. PMC 2234541.
  30. ^ "Hyperalimentation, Hypophosphatemia and Coma". Anesthesiology. 38 (3): 308. March 1973. doi:10.1097/00000542-197303000-00032. ISSN 0003-3022.
  31. ^ Hearing, Stephen D (2004-04-15). "Refeeding syndrome". BMJ. 328 (7445): 908–909. doi:10.1136/bmj.328.7445.908. ISSN 0959-8138. PMC 390152. PMID 15087326.
  32. ^ Marik, Paul E. (1996-10-01). "Refeeding Hypophosphatemia in Critically Ill Patients in an Intensive Care Unit". Archives of Surgery. 131 (10): 1043–7. doi:10.1001/archsurg.1996.01430220037007. ISSN 0004-0010. PMID 8857900.
  33. ^ a b c d e Larson-Nath C, Biank VF (February 2016). "Clinical Review of Failure to Thrive in Pediatric Patients". Pediatric Annals. 45 (2): e46-9. doi:10.3928/00904481-20160114-01. PMID 26878182.
  34. ^ Boddy J, Skuse D, Andrews B (November 2000). "The developmental sequelae of nonorganic failure to thrive". Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines. 41 (8): 1003–14. doi:10.1111/1469-7610.00688. PMID 11099117.
  35. ^ Black MM, Dubowitz H, Krishnakumar A, Starr RH (July 2007). "Early intervention and recovery among children with failure to thrive: follow-up at age 8". Pediatrics. 120 (1): 59–69. doi:10.1542/peds.2006-1657. PMID 17606562. S2CID 20638166.
  36. ^ Goh LH, How CH, Ng KH (June 2016). "Failure to thrive in babies and toddlers". Singapore Medical Journal. 57 (6): 287–291. doi:10.11622/smedj.2016102. PMC 4971446. PMID 27353148.
  37. ^ a b Thompson RT, Bennett WE, Finnell SM, Downs SM, Carroll AE (March 2013). "Increased length of stay and costs associated with weekend admissions for failure to thrive". Pediatrics. 131 (3): e805-10. doi:10.1542/peds.2012-2015. PMID 23439903. S2CID 955151.
  38. ^ a b c Estrem HH, Pados BF, Park J, Knafl KA, Thoyre SM (January 2017). "Feeding problems in infancy and early childhood: evolutionary concept analysis". Journal of Advanced Nursing. 73 (1): 56–70. doi:10.1111/jan.13140. PMID 27601073. S2CID 1353002.

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