Failure to Thrive (FTT) in Children

What is failure to thrive in children?

Failure to thrive (FTT) is slow physical development in a baby or child. It’s caused by a baby or child not having enough nutrition.

What causes failure to thrive in a child?

Failure to thrive has many possible causes. In some cases, more than one thing may cause it.

A baby or child may not be taking in enough nutrients and calories. This can occur if a baby or child:

  • Is not given enough breastmilk, formula, or food
  • Has breastfeeding problems
  • Is not given solid food at an appropriate age
  • Is not willing to eat enough food
  • Vomits food repeatedly, such as from severe gastroesophageal reflux
  • Has trouble swallowing
  • Has developmental delays that cause feeding problems

A baby or child may take in enough food, but not be able to absorb enough nutrients and calories. This can occur if a child has a problem such as:

  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Celiac disease
  • Severe food allergies or intolerance

A baby or child with an ongoing (chronic) health condition may also need more calories and nutrients than normal. This may be the case with congenital heart disease or a genetic syndrome.

In some cases, a family may not have enough support or understanding of what a baby needs. Or they may not provide the right kinds or amounts of food. In severe cases, neglect or abuse may lead to FTT if food is kept from a baby on purpose. 

Which children are at risk for failure to thrive?

A child is more at risk for FTT if he or she is in a family that has problems with poverty, high stress, or parental coping skills.

What are the symptoms of failure to thrive in a child?

Symptoms can occur a bit differently in each baby or child. They can include:

  • Not enough weight gain for age
  • Low height (or length, if a baby) for age
  • Irritability
  • Tiredness
  • More sleepiness than normal
  • Lack of age-appropriate social response, such as smiling
  • No vocal sounds
  • Delayed physical movement changes (motor development)
  • Learning and behavior problems in older children

The symptoms of failure to thrive can be like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is failure to thrive diagnosed in a child?

Failure to thrive is usually diagnosed by a healthcare provider. Babies are weighed and measured by a healthcare provider during routine checkups. The provider will give your child a physical exam. The exam will include checking the baby's growth, development, and functioning.

How is failure to thrive treated in a child?

Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is. And it depends on the cause.                                         

Your child may need to see more than one healthcare provider, such as:

  • Social worker
  • Nutritionist
  • Physical therapist
  • Geneticist

The healthcare providers will work with the family to find the cause of FTT, and help the child get more nutrition.

What are possible complications of failure to thrive in a child?

A child with FTT is at risk for problems such as:

  • Short height
  • Behavior problems
  • Developmental delays
  • Thinking problems
  • Problems in school

How can I help prevent failure to thrive in my child?

The problem can be prevented by seeking early help with a child’s nutritional needs.

Online Medical Reviewer: Liora C Adler MD

Online Medical Reviewer: Amy Finke RN BSN

Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN

Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2019

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