Failure to Thrive

What is failure to thrive?

Failure to thrive is a term to describe poor or interrupted growth in babies or young children. It is a descriptive term of the condition and not a disease itself. There are many diseases which can affect the growth of babies and infants. The outcome depends on the condition underlying the failure to thrive. If the cause is treated early, children have a good chance of continuing to grow normally.


Failure to thrive is a fairly common problem. There are various possible reasons for its occurrence. A child who is small for his age, but has a normal physique when considered within the context of their family, should not be considered to have a failure to thrive. Common causes of failure to thrive include malnutrition due to feeding difficulties, some medical conditions or metabolic disorders and long-standing medical conditions such as heart or kidney conditions. Smoking, drinking alcohol or catching certain illnesses during pregnancy may also increase the risk for the offspring to develop growth problems later on. Failure to thrive may, in some cases, be a first sign that a child is being abused or neglected. This condition is most commonly diagnosed in babies and infants, but can also be applied to older children.


Symptoms depend on the severity and the underlying cause of the condition. Children who are failing to thrive may not only be small or light for their age, but may also be excessively tired, irritable or slow to develop normal skills, such as rolling, sitting or walking. Other symptoms may occur, depending on the underlying cause.


Diagnosis is usually made by a child health nurse or pediatrician during routine check-ups, during which weight, length and head circumference measurements are taken. These measurements are compared to the expected measurements for healthy children of the same age, and also compared to the child's own measurements taken before growth began to slow. If there are signs that a child is failing to thrive, further tests may be done to investigate and diagnose the underlying causes.


Managing failure to thrive involves treating or managing the underlying condition. Getting advice on feeding and increasing the nutrients and calories in the child's diet may be helpful. Parenting support groups may be a helpful source of support and strategies for managing during this time.


Regular check ups with child health nurses can help to diagnose failure to thrive early. Parenting classes or support groups may help to develop ways and habits to improve a child's nutrition.

Other names for failure to thrive

  • poor infant growth