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Failure to Thrive in Children: Care Instructions


Failure to thrive is a medical term. It describes a child who gains weight or height more slowly than other children.

A baby who has failed to thrive may be slow to develop physical skills. The baby may roll over, stand, or walk later than other children do. In some cases, slow physical development leads to mental and social delays.

Failure to thrive has different causes. It can be caused by medical problems. These include anemia or thyroid problems. It can also be caused by emotional problems. And in some cases it happens when a child does not get enough to eat. This can happen when food is not available.

If the cause is medical, your doctor may be able to treat that problem. This could help your child gain weight at a normal rate.

If your child has emotional problems or is affected by the conditions at home, treatment may include counselling and improving the home situation. Your doctor may recommend that your child get nutritional therapy in the hospital. Your child may be able to develop at a normal rate if the period of failure to thrive has been short and your doctor finds and treats the cause.

Follow-up care is a key part of your child's treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if your child is having problems. It's also a good idea to know your child's test results and keep a list of the medicines your child takes.

How can you care for your child at home?

  • If your baby is nursing, talk to your doctor. Make sure that you have enough breast milk. And find out if your baby is nursing well.
  • If your baby is bottle-fed, talk to your doctor about the correct way to prepare the formula. Also, talk with your doctor about ways to give your child more nutrition from the formula.
  • If your child is school-age:
    • Have a regular snack and meal schedule. Most children do well with three meals and two or three snacks a day.
    • Eat as a family as often as you can. Try to enjoy meals together.
    • Be a good role model. Let your child see you eat the food that you want your child to eat.
  • Do not let your child fill up on drinks instead of eating a meal. Try holding the drink back until your child eats some food.
  • If your child is not interested in eating, try to increase your child's physical activity. Limit TV, video games, or computer time.
  • Do not use food as a reward for success or good behaviour.
  • If your doctor recommends meeting with a dietitian or counsellor, go to your appointments. You may need a series of visits.
  • If you or your child is not getting enough food, ask your doctor about food programs in your area, food banks, and food pantries.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think your child may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • Your child stops breathing, turns blue, or becomes unconscious. Follow instructions given by emergency services while you wait for help.
  • Your child has severe trouble breathing. Signs may include the chest sinking in, using belly muscles to breathe, or nostrils flaring while your child is struggling to breathe.
  • Your child passes out (loses consciousness).

Call your doctor or nurse advice line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child is weak or has no energy.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse advice line if:

  • Your child seems to be losing weight.
  • Your child does not start to thrive as expected.

Where can you learn more?

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Care instructions adapted under license by your healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.