The term 'faltering growth' (previously called 'failure to thrive') is widely used to refer to a slower rate of weight gain in childhood than expected for age and sex. The term faltering growth is preferred as periods of slow growth may represent temporary variation from the expected pattern and the word 'failure' may be seen as pejorative. Various definitions of faltering growth have been used in the past, meaning estimates of prevalence in the UK vary widely.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has produced growth standards, based on longitudinal studies of healthy breastfed infants. These standards, along with UK term and preterm infant growth data, have been incorporated into UK WHO growth charts for monitoring growth in UK children. A child's weight, length or height and head circumference can be plotted on these charts to provide a visual representation of growth over time. Epidemiological data suggest that healthy children usually progress relatively consistently along a growth centile.

Newborn infants normally lose weight in the early days of life. Persisting or large weight losses can cause concern in parents, carers and health professionals about ineffective establishment of feeding. In older children, faltering growth can occur when nutritional intake does not meet a child's specific energy requirements. Undernutrition presents as a relatively slow weight gain, demonstrated by downward movement across weight centiles on the growth chart.

Children with faltering growth may be identified by routine growth monitoring or by parental or health professional concern. Standard management is usually community based, with support and advice provided to increase energy intake and manage challenging feeding behaviour. Some children will be referred to paediatric dieticians or paediatricians for further assessment and management.

Certain health conditions predispose children to faltering growth (for example, cystic fibrosis or coeliac disease). Specific treatment for these conditions can improve or restore expected rates of weight gain. In children with no specific cause for faltering growth, simple interventions to increase nutritional intake may be effective in improving weight gain. Faltering growth in early childhood may be associated with persisting problems with appetite and feeding.

The cause of faltering growth in the absence of a specific underlying health condition is likely to be complex and multifactorial. In the past, child neglect or socioeconomic and educational disadvantage were often considered to be likely contributors. While neglected children may be undernourished, neglect is an uncommon explanation for faltering growth. Similarly, significant associations with socioeconomic or educational factors have not been demonstrated.

There is variation across the UK in care provided for infants, children and families where concerns are raised about early weight loss or faltering growth. There is cultural and socioeconomic variation in starting and continuing breastfeeding, the approach to introducing complementary solid food and choice of foods, feeding behaviour and parental acceptance of feeding support and advice.

  • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)