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Understanding Failure to Thrive from Age One and Beyond

14 Oct 2021

Some parts of childhood are often taken for granted, like the desire to play, make friends or watch cartoons. And while getting bigger and stronger can be a natural part of life for some kids, for others it can be more complicated and challenging. 

In fact, one in every 100 children admitted to a hospital struggle with normal growth – a condition known as Failure to Thrive.  

What is Failure to Thrive?

Failure to Thrive, is a term that typically refers to children whose growth and development is delayed, though it can occur in adults too – including those who may be going through cancer treatments or even dealing with depression. 

In children, a doctor will diagnose Failure to Thrive when their weight or height falls below the third percentile for their age based on standard medical growth charts, or when the rate of growth significantly slows down – you may hear this referred to as “falling off the curve.” 

Infants and children with Failure to Thrive can look much smaller than their peers, and their mental and social skills may be slow to develop. In teens and pre-teens, signs of puberty also can be delayed. 

What Causes of Failure to Thrive?

Beyond age one, Failure to Thrive is typically caused by another underlying medical condition that can make it hard to meet one’s calorie and nutrition needs. Sometimes, it’s because another health issue makes eating difficult. In other cases, it may be due to a medical condition that interferes with food digestion and calorie absorption. And sometimes, a disease can dramatically increase the amount of calories one needs, making it hard to keep up with regular meals and snacks alone.

In children, medical causes of Failure to Thrive include:

  • Chromosome abnormalities, like Down syndrome and Turner syndrome
  • Damage or defects in major organs
  • Hormone-related issues or deficiencies
  • Problems with the brain and central nervous system, including cerebral palsy
  • Issues related to the heart or lungs
  • Blood disorders, like anemia
  • Any problems related to the gastrointestinal track, from the esophagus to the large intestine
  • Long-term infections
  • Any disorder affecting metabolism, including phenylketonuria (PKU)
  • Mitochondrial disease, which affects how the body’s cells produce energy

Finding New Ways to Nourish through Tube Feeding

Addressing Failure to Thrive and finding new strategies to meet your loved one’s nutrition needs is vitally important, especially in the early years of life when the brain is still developing. Long-term complications of Failure to Thrive include developmental delays, behavioral and thinking problems, difficulty in school and permanently stunted growth. Without enough nutrition, people are also more vulnerable to illness and recovery from sickness can take longer.

For parents and caregivers, considering tube feeding can feel intimidating and even scary. But while it’s rarely a first-line treatment option, it can be a safe and incredibly effective way to provide much-needed nourishment. 

Tube feeding may be the right solution for your loved one if she or he:

  • Cannot safely eat and drink enough to support healthy growth and development
  • Struggles to eat enough by mouth to catch up on necessary weight gain
  • Expends too much energy eating and drinking
  • Refuses to eat or drink, or takes excessive time for meals and snacks
  • Cannot tolerate certain types of liquids or food textures
  • Has a medical condition that makes gaining or maintaining a healthy weight difficult


The Benefits of Tube Feeding with Real Food Ingredients

There is a wide world of tube-feeding formulas available today to ensure each person’s unique medical and nutritional needs are met. And, real -food formulas are becoming increasingly popular. That’s because they’re made from a blend of recognizable ingredients, which may include fruit, vegetables, chicken or grains, which for some may be easier to digest than standard tube-feeding formulas. Tube-feeding formulas made from real food ingredients also provide beneficial, naturally-occurring fiber along with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

If you’re thinking more about the potential benefits of tube feeding, talk to your doctor or registered dietitian nutritionist to determine what feeding approach makes the most sense for your specific situation.

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