Understanding Failure to Thrive in Infants: Causes, Symptoms and Solutions

Understanding Failure to Thrive in Infants: Causes, Symptoms and Solutions

Sep 08 , 2021

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Megan McDonough

Failure to thrive is a scary term to hear as a mom, especially when you are feeding every couple of hours and all-around doing your best. While ‘failure to thrive’ is often referred to as a diagnosis, it’s really more of a symptom, which means there is a solution. 

If you’re concerned your baby might not be developing at a normal rate, checking with your doctor is a good first stop. Also, remember that every mom’s milk supply is different and that more often than not, your baby is getting enough milk. 

What is failure to thrive?

According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, failure to thrive (FTT) in infants happens when their height and weight measurements fall below the third or fifth percentile, or if there’s a downward change in growth percentiles. In most cases, these babies will appear noticeably smaller or shorter than those of their peers. Over time, these deficiencies can negatively affect a child’s height, head circumference and their development of cognitive skills. 

What causes failure to thrive?

There are so several factors that might contribute to a FTT diagnosis, the most common being inadequate caloric intake. In infants, this manifests in a couple of ways: not consuming enough breastmilk or formula due to poor feeding habits or a poor latch, not willing to eat enough food, or vomiting due to gastroesophageal reflux. 

Failure to thrive might be caused by inadequate nutrient absorption, as is the case with an iron deficiency, celiac disease, cystic fibrosis, irritable bowel syndrome and other chronic gastrointestinal conditions, or a milk protein allergy. A third culprit is increased metabolism, which is linked with chronic infections, hyperthyroidism, asthma and other inflammatory conditions, renal failure and malignancy. 

What are symptoms I should look out for?

The first sign of FTT is that your baby doesn’t seem to be growing based on how much they eat. Of course, this can be tricky, especially because babies are so small to begin with and not every baby grows at the same speed. 

When you’re breastfeeding, it can be tough sometimes to know exactly how much milk your baby is consuming. In fact, many moms who choose exclusive pumping do so because it allows them to better understand the exact amount of food their baby is getting at each feeding. 

Here are a few other symptoms your baby might show: 
  • They are irritable (more than what you’d consider ‘normal’ for them)
  • They get exhausted easily
  • They sleep a lot, or more than what is ‘normal’
  • They aren’t showing age-appropriate social responses such as smiling
  • They have delayed motor development
  • They aren’t making vocal noises 

What can I do to help support my baby’s growth?

It can be hard to know if your baby is getting enough milk, and we know it’s a constant concern many moms face. The good news is that during your regular doctor check-ins, they will weigh and measure your baby and keep track of their growth trajectory. In most cases, if your doctor suspects that your baby has FTT, they will call for targeted lab tests to dig deeper into what is going on and how to best move forward. 

We did a whole post on some of our favorite virtual support resources for new and expecting moms, covering everything from prenatal fitness classes to lactation support. Below are a few other suggestions on how to best support your baby’s growth: 

Early allergen detection 

When it comes to potential allergies, we found this mama’s story really inspiring. After her first baby had severe allergic reactions, she wanted to help other moms going through the same situation. Trillitye founded Free to Feed™ with the goal of creating a test trip to allow parents to test the presence of allergens at home, to give an ingredient deck for the boob. 

Free to Feed™ has a yearly subscription that offers support to parents, including educational modules that cover everything from explaining what allergens are to how to talk to daycare providers about your baby’s allergies. 

Nutrition for moms

Whitney, founder and CEO of Momful, had a tough time getting her baby to gain weight. Despite round-the-clock feedings, her daughter’s weight had dropped to below the third percentile. Momful’s mission is to nourish moms on their breastfeeding journey, to help them meet their breastfeeding goals, whatever they might be. 

Momful’s daily packets are great for a daily regimen. It eliminates the added stress of ordering each vitamin bottle separately and sometimes forgetting which ones you’ve taken.  

Virtual, alternative care

Robyn providers collaborate with reproductive endocrinologists, OB-GYNS, and other physicians on treatment plans that complement your primary care. They connect aspiring, expecting with the support they need, ranging from mental health check-ins and fertility coaching to acupuncture and chiropractic care. 

Get 25% off the first 3 months, and a 4 day free trial with the code LILU25X3. 

Lilu massage bra

Support comes in many forms, and we’re doing our best to make your life a little easier. It is the first ever bra that does the massage for you, empowering moms on their pumping journey, allowing them to pump more milk in less time, all while going completely hands-free. Our bra also features pockets to hold the massage cushions in place and provide bottle support. 

The Lilu Massage Bra allows moms to increase their milk supply through pumping. For moms who have babies with a FTT diagnosis, pumping makes it easier to measure exactly how much milk they are taking in during each feeding.

Lilu is a Women’s Health company building tech-enabled devices to empower new moms. Our first product, the Lilu Massage Bra, mimics compression massage, so you can empty your breasts fully to establish, increase and maintain your milk supply. Pump up to 50% more milk each session, all while going hands-free.

Lilu Massage Bra with flanges

Lilu Massage Bra


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