Failure to Thrive Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Andrew P Sirotnak, MD; Chief Editor: Caroly Pataki, MD  more...
Updated: Nov 04, 2015


The history for evaluating pediatric growth failure and malnutrition is addressed in detail elsewhere. This discussion addresses the infant with failure to thrive (FTT) primarily related to nonmedical (eg, environmental, psychosocial) causes.

Maternal medical history should include the following:

  • Maternal age
  • Gravidity
  • Parity
  • Abortions
  • Pregnancy health history, including a detailed history of weight gain, prenatal care, substance or cigarette use, nutrition and unusual nutritional practices, general complications, bleeding, infections, fevers, and toxemia
  • Labor and delivery and complications, if any

Neonatal medical history should include the following:

  • Gestational age determined at birth
  • Intrauterine growth rate (IUGR)
  • Apgar scores
  • Birth weight, length, and head circumference with percentiles
  • Neonatal course and complications, including sepsis, jaundice, feeding intolerance, or feeding difficulties
  • Detailed medical history of newborn period
  • Completed review of newborn screens (eg, phenylketonuria [PKU], other inborn errors of metabolism)

The infant's or child's history should include the following:

  • Medical-based history to exclude medical causes
  • Feeding and nutritional history
  • Growth and developmental progress

Postnatal medical history should include the following:

  • Immunizations
  • Allergies
  • Medications
  • Food intolerance
  • Formula intolerance
  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Dysphagia
  • Snoring
  • Sleep apnea
  • Recurrent respiratory or other bacterial and viral infections
  • Signs of immune deficiency
  • Malabsorption symptoms and signs
  • CNS abnormalities
  • Developmental delay or delayed or regressed milestones

A detailed history of food intake from infancy through the current period is vital, and feeding history should include the following:

  • Age-adjusted and age-dependent dietary details - Milk, formula, solids, vitamins, other supplements, food allergy or intolerance
  • Feeding behaviors - Sucking, chewing, and swallowing difficulty; limited food preference or negative responses to food and feeding; frequency and timing of meals
  • Caregivers' knowledge - Nutrition and feeding, dietary beliefs, religious and cultural beliefs about food, any unusual diets that might be inappropriate for a child
  • Basic food and nutritional needs - Anything that prevents the family from (or assists the family with) getting food (eg, finances, transportation, subsidized programs); appropriate and safe preparation of food by the caregiver (eg, clean water, housing or shelter, cooking facility, refrigeration, cooking knowledge)
  • Issues of nutritional ignorance (inadequate amounts or types of food, unusual dietary beliefs)
  • Review of all developmental milestones for infancy and childhood, looking for either failure to attain or regression from the norm at specific ages

The details of the psychosocial history are vital and should include the following:

  • Finances, poverty risk factors (In 2004, food insecurity was identified in 42% of low-income houses with children younger than 6 y.[3] )
  • Environment (eg, 1 bedroom apartment, 4 adults, 4 children)
  • Family structure
  • Caregiver identity and responsibility
  • Daycare use
  • Beliefs about child rearing
  • History of abuse or neglect
  • Prior child with growth problems
  • Family substance abuse or addiction
  • Violence or chaotic family structure
  • Risks for or signs of maternal postpartum depression[5]
  • Educational level of parent or caregiver
  • Employment with caregiver arrangements
  • Food subsidy (eg, food stamps, Women, Infants, and Children [WIC] Program)
  • Transportation problems
  • Welfare or other aid programs
  • Health insurance
  • Family or cultural concepts on feeding and specific foods


The physical examination must be detailed and carefully performed to detect any disease or syndrome that might affect growth and development. The examination most often reveals a rather small and undernourished infant with normal vital signs and with most developmental milestones either intact or mildly delayed. Hospitalization is only needed for the rare infant with signs of severe malnutrition as evidenced by cachexia or marasmus.

Plotting growth parameters on the appropriate growth chart is essential. Multiple data points are helpful to evaluate trends in growth. Weight should be measured with the child unclothed. Length (not height), head circumference, weight for height and body mass index should also be plotted. Some conditions, such as Down syndrome, achondroplasia, and Turner syndrome, require specific growth charts.

The following may be noted on physical examination:

  • Vital signs - Temperature, blood pressure (in 4 extremities in an infant or one arm and one leg in young child), pulse, respiration
  • General - Appearance, activity, affect
  • Skin and hair - Poor hair texture and amount, nails, alopecia, hygiene, rashes, birth marks, trauma (eg, bruises, burns, or scars as signs of physical abuse)
  • Head - Size, frontal bossing, fontanel size and patency, dysmorphia
  • Eyes - Dysmorphia, ptosis, sunset sign, palpebral fissures, pallor, trauma, optic discs, fundi for evidence of chorioretinitis (toxoplasmosis, other infections, rubella, cytomegalovirus infection, and herpes simplex [TORCH]), cataracts (TORCH or inborn errors of metabolism)
  • External ears - Size, shape, position, infection
  • Middle ears - Infection, acute or chronic
  • Mouth and pharynx - Palate deformity, submucous cleft, tongue, teeth, caries, glossitis, mucous membrane hydration or lesions, thrush, bleeding, unusual odors to the breath
  • Neck - Shape, web, masses, nodes, thyroid abnormalities
  • Chest - Breath sound, cardiac examination for murmurs or cardiomegaly or arrhythmias
  • Abdomen - Protuberance, organomegaly, masses, bowel sounds, normal umbilicus healing in infant
  • Genitalia - Normal for age, malformations, ambiguous in quality, hygiene, trauma
  • Extremities - Edema; digit malformations; examination of the nails, joints, spine, and back
  • Neurologic function - Cranial nerves, reflexes (increased or decreased), tone, infant reflexes present or extinguished at appropriate age, gait, suck/swallow coordination
  • Muscles - Muscle development and quality and texture of muscle mass
  • Adversive behaviors - Gaze avoidance, arching, hypertonicity, refusal to attach or respond appropriately, unusual body movements


See History.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Andrew P Sirotnak, MD Professor and Vice Chair of Faculty Affairs, Department of Pediatrics, University of Colorado School of Medicine; Department Head, Child Abuse and Neglect, Director, Child Protection Team, The Children's Hospital

Andrew P Sirotnak, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Antonia Chiesa, MD Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Colorado School of Medicine

Antonia Chiesa, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Pediatrics, Phi Beta Kappa

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Mary L Windle, PharmD Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Caroly Pataki, MD Health Sciences Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles, David Geffen School of Medicine

Caroly Pataki, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, New York Academy of Sciences, Physicians for Social Responsibility

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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This 6-month-old infant was admitted with marasmus. The infant was born to a mother who did not bond effectively because of postpartum depression. He has evidence of severe wasting and neglectful care as also evidenced by the diaper excoriation. Weight gain was achieved by placement in foster home.
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