As a parent, of course you’re trying to keep your child happy and healthy. You’re focused on providing the right amount of nutrients to help them grow and be strong.
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But despite your best efforts, some children still may not achieve the recommended weight. This leaves you asking “is my child underweight for their age or size?”
So what makes a child underweight? How can you get an underweight child to gain weight they need to grow? You may also wonder “when should I worry about my child’s weight?” if the things you do as a parent don’t seem to be helping.
Pediatric registered dietitian, Jennifer Hyland, RD, answers some common questions about weight, and how healthcare providers can help families get on track and help their underweight child gain in a healthy way.
A: A child is underweight if they’re in the bottom 5th percentile for weight compared to their height. Underweight is not only classified compared to other children their age, but to their height as we clinically look for a child to be proportionate.
The way pediatricians and dietitians monitor children is on a weight-to-length measurement for children from birth to age 2.
After age 2, we use the Centers for Disease Control growth charts to look at weight, height and BMI (body mass index) for age. BMI for this age range compares a child’s weight to their height. A BMI for age less than the 5th percentile indicates a child is underweight.
A: There are several signs that parents should watch for:
A: Children born prematurely are often underweight because their growth needs to catch up with peers. But a common reason older children are underweight is inadequate food intake.
This may or may not be a result of picky eating. There are also several medical issues that can suppress appetite or block nutrient absorption. These include:
A: When a pediatrician finds that your child is underweight, they may schedule a one-day consultation with a dietitian. The goal is to rule out poor food intake as the issue, and if so, the dietitian can offer recommendations.
You’ll usually be asked to keep a food record that examines your child’s eating habits. The dietitian will also look at other possibilities:
A: There are some common trends that many parents should focus on preventing or avoiding to help their child gain weight properly.
A: Believe it or not, the goal is to incorporate more fats into the child’s diet — not just any fats like saturated fats from fried foods, but healthy fats like those from oils and nut butters. Here are some suggestions:
The overall goal is to instill sustainable, healthy eating habits. That’s why it’s important to meet with a dietitian who will also help monitor your child’s progress and offer tips and recipes.
A: Dietitians work closely with parents and families to aid their understanding of why food intake is inadequate and make a plan that fits each families goals and beliefs.
“Dietitians focus on working one-on-one with families to help children gain weight in a way that is consistent with the family’s dietary preferences,” Hyland says. “They can work with all sorts of preferences and varieties of food, including organic foods, whole foods, vegan diets, or diets influenced by religious or cultural beliefs.”