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Failure to Thrive

Fact Sheet

What Is Failure to Thrive?

Although it has been recognized for more than a century, Failure to Thrive Syndrome (FTT) lacks a precise definition. This is partly because it describes a condition rather than a specific disease. Children who fail to thrive do not receive, or are unable to take in, retain, or utilize the calories needed to gain weight and grow as expected.

Most diagnoses of Failure to Thrive Syndrome are made in infants and toddlers in the first few years of life (a crucial period of physical and mental development). After birth, a child’s brain grows as much in the first year as it will grow during the rest of the child’s life.

How is it manifested?

A child who has stopped growing and/or has experienced significant weight loss may be suffering from Failure to Thrive Syndrome. A medical assessment is necessary to determine whether the syndrome is a medical or a non-medical condition.

The following characteristics are often present in failure-to-thrive children.

  • lack of appropriate weight gain
  • irritability
  • easily fatigued
  • excessive sleepiness
  • lack of age-appropriate social response
  • does not make vocal sounds
  • delayed motor development
  • learning and behaviour difficulties later in childhood

Potential Causes

  • not enough food offered
  • child eats too little due to prematurity, developmental delays, or has sensitivity to textures and tastes
  • health problems involving the digestive system, such as gastroesophageal reflux (GER), chronic diarrhea, Cystic Fibrosis, chronic liver disease, and Celiac Disease
  • food intolerance –body is sensitive to certain foods
  • an ongoing illness or disorder
  • infections
  • metabolic disorders

Who is affected?

An accurate number of incidences of Failure to Thrive Syndrome is unknown and often depends on the population. However, approximately 5-10% of low birth weight children and children living in poverty have FTT.

How is it diagnosed or detected?

Due to the fact that children grow and develop at different rates, it is necessary for a paediatrician to keep track of a child’s growth and weight during regular checkups. In making the diagnosis, it is necessary to provide the physician with a detailed history of the child combined with a current physical examination. This includes: diet and feeding behaviours; medical history; past and current medications; social history; and family history. Growth charts for length, weight, and head circumference help in confirming the diagnosis of Failure to Thrive Syndrome..

Additional Resources:

About Kids

Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term

Books and Literature:

Failure to Thrive and Paediatric Undernutrition
By Daniel B. Kessler and Peter Dawson

Failure to Thrive: Recognizing and Resolving Non-Physical Feeding Disorders
By Di Hampton

The content contained in this document is for general information purposes. It is not the intention to diagnose or treat a child.

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