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Inadequate Weight Gain in Children: Definition, Causes and Treatment

written by: Angela Atkinson • edited by: KJ Fitness,Ink • updated: 4/28/2009

Are you concerned with your child's growth patterns? Has your doctor told you that you're child is not gaining weight as he or she should be? Has your child been diagnosed with failure to thrive? Here, learn what causes inadequate weight gain in children and how to treat it.

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    Image Credit: Thier Aquino
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    Inadequate Weight Gain in Children: Failure to Thrive

    Most parents, especially parents with small children, concern themselves with their children’s weight. Doctors advise that children remain within a healthy weight range, and if children are overweight or underweight, they recommend that certain actions are taken to ensure their health.

    In cases of inadequate weight gain in children, most pediatricians diagnose “failure to thrive," which indicates that the child is not growing and gaining weight at a satisfactory rate. If the child is simply small for his or her age but is growing at a steady rate, he or she is not generally diagnosed with failure to thrive.

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    Inadequate Weight Gain in Children: Definition

    It’s important to understand that a diagnosis of failure to thrive only applies to a child’s physical growth. It has nothing to do with mental, emotional or other developmental factors.

    Inadequate weight gain in children caused by failure to thrive is indicated when a child’s weight is consistently lower than the third to fifth percentile for his or her age—or when a child loses weight and remains at or below the third percentile. Another indicator is when a child’s slows down in two or more major growth parameters.

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    Inadequate Weight Gain in Children: Possible Causes

    Inadequate weight gain can be caused by parental neglect or abuse in some cases. This can be due to simply not feeding the child adequate amounts of food or because the child isn’t receiving appropriately nutritious foods (usually because the family cannot afford it.) In other situations, extremely volatile situations at home can cause a child to refuse food.

    Inadequate weight gain in children can also be caused by medical disorders or problems. For example, children with cleft palates or lips may have trouble chewing or swallowing. Kids with acid (esophageal) reflux may turn away from food as well. In fact, esophageal reflux and other digestive disorders can inhibit the child’s body’s ability to absorb the nutrients from the food he or she does eat.

    In some cases, the cause for failure to thrive is more serious. Children who have various infections, cancers, genetic disorders, hormonal or metabolic disorders like diabetes and cystic fibrosis, heart problems, and even HIV are at increased risk for failure to thrive.

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    Inadequate Weight Gain in Children: Why Parents Should Be Concerned

    Children who don’t gain weight adequately in the first year of life are especially affected, as this is the most important time for cerebral growth and development. In fact, kids who are diagnosed with failure to thrive in the first year may fall permanently behind other kids their age mentally, even if their growth trends improve. This is why it’s so important to maintain regular contact with your pediatrician and other medical professionals in regard to your child, especially since, in most cases, it’s possible to correct the problem before it becomes significant.

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    Inadequate Weight Gain in Children: Possible Solutions

    Depending on the cause, treatments may vary. If the cause is a serious medical concern, treatment is prescribed by the physician, and often treating the initial disease will reverse failure to thrive.

    Assuming the problem is not due to a serious medical concern, pediatricians determine the course of action depending on the significance of the problem. If the child is mildly or moderately affected by failure to thrive, it may simply be a matter of adding nutritious snacks to an already balanced diet, or increasing the dietary balance through nutritional counseling.

    If the problem is more severe, the child may be admitted into a hospital until he or she is out of immediate danger, and then transferred to an outpatient program which the parents would also participate in. This way, parents are allowed access to trained medical professionals like psychiatrists, nutritionists and feeding specialists, doctors and social workers, who can help them to put a proper plan in place to ensure the child’s health.

    If you're concerned about your own child's growth patterns, you can check the standard height and weight charts for boys and girls or try this online self diagnosis test. Most importantly, check with your child's pediatrician.