Failure to thrive


Adoptive Families Association of BC
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Failure to thrive is a description applied to children whose current weight or rate of weight gain is significantly below that of other children of similar age and sex. Failure to thrive usually affects young children, especially under the age of 2.

It is important to determine whether the failure to thrive results from medical problems with the child or from psychosocial factors in the environment, such as abuse or neglect.

There are multiple medical causes of failure to thrive:

  • Chromosome abnormalities such as Down syndrome
  • Anemia or other blood disorders
  • Some diseases such as cerebral palsy
  • Abnormalities in the gastrointestinal system, which may result in malabsorption or absence of digestive enzymes, thus resulting in inadequate nutrition
  • Abnormalities in the cardiac and respiratory systems, which can disrupt delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the body
  • Damage to the brain or central nervous system, which may cause feeding difficulties in an infant, resulting in delayed growth

Psychological and social causes may include emotional deprivation as a result of parental withdrawal or hostility. Economic factors can affect nutrition, living conditions and parental attitudes. Environmental factors may include exposure to infections, parasites, or toxins.

Risk factors for failure to thrive are related to the causes and may include underlying undiagnosed diseases, poverty, negative emotional environments, and crowded or unsanitary conditions.


  • Height, weight, and head circumference in an infant or young child do not progress normally according to standard growths charts
  • Physical skills such as rolling over, sitting, standing and walking are slow to develop mental and social skills are delayed
  • Developmental of secondary sexual characteristics are delayed in adolescents

The treatment depends on the cause of the delayed growth and development. Delayed growth due to nutritional factors can be resolved by a well-balanced diet and by educating the parents.

If psychosocial factors are involved, treatment should include improving the family dynamics and living conditions. Parental attitudes and behaviour may contribute to a child's problems and need to be examined. In many cases, a child may need to be hospitalized initially to focus on implementation of a comprehensive medical, behavioural, and psychosocial treatment plan.

Permanent mental, emotional, or physical delays can occur.

This resource is by no means intended as a substitute for a doctor's advice or diagnosis. Any concerns you may have with regard to your child's health and development should be discussed with a professional in an appropriate field.