Malnutrition in babies and young children

October 23, 2019 Providence Nutrition Team


In this article:

  • Why malnutrition presents a serious threat to the health of babies and children

  • Recognizing the signs of malnutrition

  • Providence clinical dietitian Melissa Stawarz explains when it’s time to consult a pediatrician

Malnutrition (poor nutrition) is a hidden epidemic that affects more and more people every year. It can strike even the youngest members of our population: babies and children.

Infants, children and teens are among those who are most at risk of malnutrition, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO advises making the most of your child’s nutrition within the first 1000 days — from conception to the child’s second birthday.  

Causes of malnutrition in babies and young children

Malnutrition isn’t a disease or disorder. Instead, think of it as a sign that a baby or child is undernourished and can’t grow or gain enough weight.

There’s often a misunderstanding that malnutrition means a child isn’t getting enough nutrition. That can certainly be one aspect of the condition. But malnutrition occurs when a child isn’t getting the right nutrition to be able to grow normally. This may be because a child:

Doesn’t receive enough calories.

Some reasons for this include:

  • The formula amount (for babies) isn’t measured correctly
  • Calories are restricted to avoid causing weight gain
  • Caregivers don’t notice hunger cues
  • There’s a lack of funds to buy enough food for the family

Can’t take in enough calories.

“Children may have trouble taking in enough food for several reasons. These could be severe or chronic medical problems such as prematurity or congenital heart disease,” says Melissa Stawarz, RD, CSPCC, LD, a clinical dietitian at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center.

According to Ms. Stawarz, some children may develop a feeding aversion that causes malnutrition. This means they don’t want to eat because health problems, medical treatments or even changes in diet cause them to avoid eating food.

Can’t retain enough calories.

Constant bouts of diarrhea or colitis can make it hard for your child’s body to hold on to nutrients and calories from food. Other conditions, such as chronic liver disease, gluten allergies and cystic fibrosis can affect your child’s ability to absorb and keep nutrients in the body.

Needs a special medical diet.

Some less common health problems and genetic conditions, such as inborn errors of metabolism, can change your child’s body’s ability to process nutrients well from a normal diet well or even safely.  These children need medical evaluation and treatment to grow and thrive.

How malnutrition affects babies and children

For infants and toddlers, the first two years of life is a vital time when their bodies and brains are developing. Typically, a baby’s brain grows as much during their first year as it will for the rest of their life. Poor nutrition during this time may cause long-term harm to the developing brain. Other problems that may arise from malnutrition in children include:

  • Not reaching their optimal size as adults, which may cause a lower physical capacity for activities and work
  • Learning problems that could lead to lower test scores and more absences from school
  • Reduced immunity — leading to the risk of contracting more infectious diseases

Recognize the signs of malnutrition

You may notice these warning signs of malnutrition in your child:

  • Problems with weight: weight loss, slow weight gain, being underweight or overweight
  • Not growing taller
  • Not outgrowing clothing sizes
  • Eating less than usual or having no interest in eating over an extended period of time (eating less at times can be normal at various ages and developmental levels)
  • Not eating well because of stomach problems
  • Being less active and playful or sleeping more than usual

Ms. Stawarz also advises, “If your family’s meal or feeding times have become stressful because of your child’s eating problems, get help from a pediatrician.”

Start by seeing your child’s doctor

If you think your baby or young child may be at risk for malnutrition, help is close at hand. Start by talking with your child’s doctor. A pediatrician can help assess your child’s growth pattern by using tools like growth charts and Z-scores. The doctor can also refer you to a specialist if needed.

These specialists may include:

  • Lactation consultants for breastfeeding infants
  • Pediatric feeding therapists such as an occupational therapist
  • Speech-language pathologists for infants or children who need help with swallowing disorders that interfere with bottle-feeding or solid food
  • Registered dietitians to help improve nutrition and provide a variety of food options

“There are a lot of factors that play a part in a child's health and development, and of course, nutrition isn’t the only one,” says Ms. Stawarz. “Still, while more research is needed, studies do show that good growth and nutrition are associated with better brain and body development. That's why we’re here: When we improve nutrition, we can help improve a child's health at every age.”


Find a doctor

Search for a pediatrician that understands how to diagnose and treat the health challenges associated with malnutrition in our provider directory.

Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can also access a full range of healthcare services. 

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Related resources


Children's health checklist, powered by Circle

World Health Organization (WHO)

Celiac disease: how it’s diagnosed

9 ways to build healthy immune systems in children

5 truths about breastfeeding

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional’s instructions.

About the Author

We are all about food! The Providence Nutrition Team loves to talk about and share our expertise on how to help you find the right diet, food types and maintenance tactics to help you live life to the fullest...while also enjoying the best foods that mother nature has to offer.

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