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Failure to Thrive: Dealing with a Difficult Diagnosis

 “He is failure to thrive.”

I blinked at the pediatrician, my mouth hanging open, tears welling up in my eyes.

How is that possible?

I thought that failure to thrive meant failure to mother. I thought babies that were labeled failure to thrive were unloved, unfed and probably just malnourished. I thought that any baby that I grew in my womb and birthed in my own powerful choices and breastfed around the clock would be thriving and healthy, at least for the most part.

I was pretty sure that the pediatrician had just told me I was failing as a mother.

I cried over this a lot, and I brooded over it for a few days. I was doing everything in my power to get him to gain weight. Finally, I got up the courage to write a post about it on my personal blog and Facebook page. Within minutes I had comments, texts and messages from so many of my friends telling me that they had been there, too.

I had no idea. I had no idea that the label “failure to thrive” is not also a label of “failure to mother”. I had no idea that “failure to thrive” simply means that the child is not on the growth chart and doesn’t appear to be heading towards the average anytime soon. I had no idea that so many Moms around me had also received this difficult label.

Maybe you have also just had this label slapped on your baby, and you are wondering how you got here. You are wondering how you failed so badly that your child is charted as “failure to thrive”. I just want to tell you a few things, Mama:

1. You are NOT a failure as a mother. In fact, if you are anything like me, you are doing MORE for that child than you have for any of your other children.

2. Don’t give up. It’s so hard. It’s hard to know if you should stop breastfeeding, if you should start exclusively pumping, if you should switch to formula, or even if you should rush to other doctors and specialists just to make sure something isn’t seriously wrong. I know it’s hard…but don’t give up. Keep feeding your baby and advocating for their health. Even on those incredibly hard days.

3. Remember that growth charts are just an average. My child (and your child, too), are most likely perfectly fine. The fact that my son is labeled “failure to thrive” simply because he is not on the charts should not be right. It’s a difficult label because it makes us feel like we are failing. But remember that it just means your child is smaller than the average child. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

4. You are not alone. I was so deeply embarrassed about the “failure to thrive” label that I didn’t want to tell anyone. I felt that if I shared that, people would think I was failing to be a good mother. But when I finally got up the courage to share, I hear stories from dozens of women, telling me that their child had been labeled failure to thrive as well. Trust me…you are not alone.

5. Prepare your heart for the comments. If my son could gain an ounce for every time someone commented, “he’s so tiny”, he would be topping the growth charts. I will just tell you that the comments will happen. And most people mean nothing harmful by them. I would encourage you to come up with several phrases to tell yourself (and even to speak out loud) when you receive a comment that comes across as hurtful in regards to this difficult label. If I know the comments are coming, I am able to deflect them and not let them affect me. 

Have you ever had a child labeled “failure to thrive”?


15 Responses to Failure to Thrive: Dealing with a Difficult Diagnosis

  1. Sarah Hardee December 6, 2016 at 9:51 am #

    Preparing yourself for comments and practicing responses is some of the best practical advice I got as a mom. With every aspect of your child or motherhood that you think might be a topic of well-meaning small talk. I’m a pastor’s wife so I know all about well-meaning conversations that hurt deep. Thanks for this article!

  2. Harmony Momma To Go December 6, 2016 at 10:09 am #

    My son was always on the edge of being labeled. He’s 7 now & totally fine. Let’s just pause and remember that middle class American kids don’t die of starvation or malnutrition they just dont

  3. Gloryanna December 6, 2016 at 10:41 am #

    I think the key about preparing your heart for the comments is so important. We cannot allow ourselves to be validated by those around us, especially as mothers. Way to brave a rough patch during the beginning of motherhood and thanks for sharing your heart.

  4. Hannah December 6, 2016 at 2:06 pm #

    Hang in there momma! That is a scary phrase but I’m sure he will be fine 🙂

  5. Kim December 6, 2016 at 4:44 pm #

    That sweet baby is lucky to have you! And other mamas who are learning this now will gather strength from you. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Sane Mama December 6, 2016 at 9:07 pm #

    My daughter didn’t have failure to thrive and I still hated the comments about how petite she was/is. I’m glad that your bravery encouraged supportive conversations with your peers. It’s good to spread the awareness.

  7. Melissa December 6, 2016 at 10:09 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this important topic! My baby was on the verge of being labeled failure to thrive when he fell off the charts around six months. It is frustrating that a baby can be perfectly fine but labeled this way and the mother made to feel like a failure. It’s important to share these stories so others going through it don’t think they are alone.

  8. Jen December 6, 2016 at 10:11 pm #

    Dang! Doctors sure do like to label the heck out of our kids! He’s so young, I’m surprised they would even make a determination. Well, again, he’s so young, he has time. Please don’t let it sink in too deep. Thanks for sharing, I’m sure there are many mommies who needs this encouragement!

  9. Anna Gallop December 6, 2016 at 11:03 pm #

    I have not been given this diagnosis for any of my kids, (though my doctor gave ME that label today…), but my kids have been tiny and off the growth charts (by my calculations) and no doubt would have been given that label if I had ever taken them to the doctor. We haven’t found a doctor or been able to afford health insurance or doctors visits until recently. As their mother and with a bit of a nursing back ground I can see that they are doing well, reaching milestones appropriately, very active, energetic – thriving – but I definitely have worried at times if they were getting enough breast milk or that maybe I wasn’t producing enough or if I should be force feeding them or if I’m doing something wrong.

  10. Stephanie Gilbert December 6, 2016 at 11:42 pm #

    I am so sorry you and your sweet boy had to walk this tough road, but I am so thankful he is doing well now! I can’t imagine how hard that must have been. I know these words will encourage other moms going through this same thing!

  11. Jennifer December 7, 2016 at 3:44 pm #

    Oh, I am so sorry you are going through this challenge. But I really do love your strength and great love for your baby. It is so encouraging! I’ll be honest, I thought “failure to thrive” was something that happened to babies whose mothers had neglected them. I didn’t know it is a general term. I am so glad I read your post to be educated on the true meaning of “failure to thrive”. You are so right in encouraging other moms to focus on baby and not compare baby to other babies. I really like your point to think of positive affirmations to say to self and out loud to others. I think it’s a great idea to encourage moms to speak up for themselves and their babies. It can certainly be done in a very loving way without offending anyone. Just like my reading this post and learning what “failure to thrive” means. Now if I ever meet a mom who has a baby going through this I will know how to respond with love and support. Many prayers and love to your family!

  12. Rebekah December 7, 2016 at 8:10 pm #

    I don’t have babies with that label but two of my boys are usually right around 3-5% on the growth chart. We hear astounded gasps allthe time when my 6yo tells people he is all the time. And then “oh, he is soo small.” I used to get mad at those comments but he is small. So I just agree and then go talk to my boys about how it doesn’t matter how big you are, you can do the same things.

  13. Jazz December 7, 2016 at 10:52 pm #

    Thanks for sharing something so personal to help other people that might be dealing with difficult diagnoses as well!

  14. Chelsea McKinney December 10, 2016 at 3:43 pm #

    Such great advice about not listening to the comments! People just really don’t think before they talk and there are so many hurtful things said to pregnant women and new mamas. Just mind yo business people! lol

  15. Lauren C. Moye December 10, 2016 at 4:20 pm #

    I wish that I had been able to read this at the start of my FTT journey. We discovered that my 2 month daughter hadn’t even gained a pound when we took her to the emergency room for something completely unrelated: a temper tantrum that looked a lot like a seizure. Her pediatricians didn’t do a 1 month appointment, so we had no idea, as first time parents, that she wasn’t eating as much as she needed. The ER immediately committed her to a pediatrics ward over an hour away. Between being forced to take an ambulance (like we wouldn’t go to the hospital otherwise!), the harsh lecture I got from the paramedic, and having “milk supply issues” go on the official documentation when I was able to pump out 20 oz in a 24 hour period, I truly felt like a failure to mother.

    Now I know that there were just so many things combined in those first two months, but I still stress over Baby H’s weight gain a full year later.