What is Failure to Thrive?

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  • Written By: C. Hearn
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 17 October 2019
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Failure to thrive is a descriptive term applied to infants or children who do not meet the expected standard of growth for their age. These kids most likely weigh less than other children in the same age bracket and generally are not growing at the typical rate. Organic failure to thrive means that the lack of growth stems from a medical condition, such as heart or blood disorder in the child, or due to complications during the mother's pregnancy. Nonorganic failure to thrive means that doctors can not find a physiological reason for the child’s stunted growth. Often, it is a combination of both organic and nonorganic elements that lead to the problem.

Symptoms that often appear along with the lack of weight gain in children who fail to thrive may include excessive fatigue, along with delays in motor, social and vocal skills. Physicians diagnose failure to thrive syndrome by using growth charts to compare the child’s weight, height and head circumference to other children of the same age, race and gender. Different countries follow growth charts based on their own population’s average rate of growth; for example, a Chinese doctor's growth chart most likely follows a different pattern of averages than a German doctor's growth chart. Additionally, doctors typically perform several lab tests to determine what may be leading to the child’s developmental delay.


Reasons that babies fail to thrive vary widely. Organic causes may include gastrointestinal problems, complications during the mother's pregnancy or infections. Additionally, heart, metabolic or blood disorders can result in stunted growth. Sometimes something as common as reflux or a food allergy leads to a baby not getting enough to eat. Nonorganic causes may include social, economic or psychological problems taking place in the life of the child. For instance, in a case of child neglect, the child may not be getting proper nutrition or forming bonds with caregivers, both of which can lead to delays in overall growth.

Treatment after a failure to thrive diagnosis depends on what is causing the condition. Sometimes caregivers simply need to be educated about how to provide proper nutrition to an infant. In other cases physicians may recommend high calorie supplements to boost the child’s growth, or, in the more severe cases, a feeding tube may be inserted in the child's stomach to provide liquid nutrition. Often an entire medical team works to help the child get past the issue. For example, a specialist may be called in to help with an infant’s feeding problems along with a nutritionist to help parents plan a diet for a child who has food allergies. If the cause is psychosocial, improvement of the child’s living conditions will generally be needed and social workers may also become involved.

If the failure to thrive period has been relatively short and the cause has been identified and corrected, the child’s development usually returns to normal. If the problem has been long-lasting, however, permanent physical, mental or emotional delays may result and can lead to problems into adulthood.

Education geared toward new parents regarding proper care and nutrition for infants helps prevent failure to thrive syndrome from occurring. Additionally, early detection and intervention, along with proper infant medical care, are key elements to getting the child back on the right path of growth.


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