Failure to Thrive

Babies and children with failure to thrive do not grow and develop at the same pace as children their same age. That’s because they aren’t getting enough nutrients to be healthy.

Remarkable care for kids

  • Empowering parents with information: You can access your child’s health history, height and weight measurements and test results through Rush’s online health record, MyChart. This information can help you monitor your child’s growth and treatments. You can also use MyChart to send messages to your child’s care team if you have questions or concerns about your child’s treatment and progress.
  • Team-based approach: Pediatricians work closely with other pediatric specialists, including pediatric gastroenterologistspediatric neurologists and pediatric endocrinologists, to determine what’s causing your child’s failure to thrive and the best treatment plan for your child.
  • Family-centered care: Your child’s care team at Rush University Children’s Hospital is dedicated to family-centered care. They believe your family should play an integral role in determining the best care plan to address your child’s unique needs and lifestyle.
  • Support for genetic conditions: The Section of Genetics at Rush provides a full range of services for diagnosis, counseling and treatment for you and your children who have or are concerned about genetic and congenital conditions that may be causing failure to thrive.

What is failure to thrive?

Failure to thrive can be caused by a medical issue, leading to food refusal or poor digestion and absorption of food, or the child’s environment.

Failure to thrive can occur for several medical reasons:

  • Genetic problems, such as Down syndrome and cystic fibrosis
  • Brain and nervous system problems that make it hard to eat or drink
  • Heart and lung problems
  • Anemia
  • Metabolism or thyroid problems causing your child to burn calories too quickly
  • Gastrointestinal problems, such as gastroesophageal refluxceliac disease or food intolerance
  • Long-term infections
  • Low-birth weight or problems during the mother’s pregnancy

And sometimes factors in a child’s environment can lead to failure to thrive:

  • Poverty and limited access to healthy foods
  • Neglect
  • Poor eating habits

Failure to thrive symptoms

Health care providers chart your child’s growth on a standard growth chart, which compares your child’s growth with other children around the country.

These charts help you and your providers recognize failure to thrive symptoms:

  • Your child’s weight, height and head size are significantly lower than what’s found on standard growth charts
  • Your child’s weight falls under the third percentile on standard growth charts
  • Your child’s growth has slowed down or even stopped

If you child has failure to thrive, they may miss or be late in meeting important milestones, such as the following:

  • Rolling over, sitting, standing and walking
  • Swallowing skills, interest in eating
  • Puberty, including developing breasts and public hair and starting to have periods

Care for failure to thrive at Rush


You can help prevent failure to thrive or find it in its early stages by taking your child to a pediatrician for regular wellness visits (or check-ups). Depending on your child’s needs, that could mean monthly for newborn babies, yearly for older children or more often depending on your child’s health.

If you notice that your child isn’t growing or developing as you think they should, call your child’s pediatrician and make an appointment.

Diagnosing failure to thrive

At Rush University Children’s Hospital, your child’s pediatrician will perform a physical exam and chart your child’s growth at regular check-ups. If your child’s clinician suspects failure to thrive, they look for a cause by doing the following:

  • Reviewing your child’s growth chart
  • Discussing your child’s health history, including questions about your child’s eating habits and health milestones
  • Checking for development delays using the Denver Developmental Screening Test (also known as the Denver Scale)
  • Testing urine, blood and hormone levels

Treatment for failure to thrive

Once your child’s clinicians finds source of the issue, they will develop a treatment plan. Depending on the cause of the failure to thrive, your child’s clinician may refer your child to other specialists, such as these:

  • Pediatric specialists who focus on one specific area, like gastrointestinal problems and neurological disorders
  • Dietitians
  • Pediatric psychologists
  • Social workers

Treatment may include the following:

  • Nutritional counseling to establish a well-balanced diet
  • Boost calorie and fluid intake
  • Address condition’s root cause with help of pediatric specialists such as gastroenterologists, neurologists and hematologists
  • Promote access to healthy foods by providing resources