Children come in all shapes and sizes. But if you're noticing that your child is shorter or smaller than their friends at school, it's natural to wonder: Is my child growing normally?
And it's a question worth asking. In 2017, the World Bank found that, globally, 22 percent of children younger than five years old are shorter than is recommended for their age. Nutrition and child development go hand in hand, so if you notice your child is falling behind, their diet might be part of the reason.
Slowed growth is not just a physical issue, it could also impact learning and development if the child is not getting the right nutrition. And it’s important to recognize that there are a lot of things that can affect a child's height and growth rate.
Physicians use pediatric growth charts to plot individual growth patterns and compare them to large-scale population data to make sure that a child is on track with their development. Any sizeable dip in your child's growth pattern may warrant a conversation with a pediatrician.
By staying proactive, though, you can spot signs of slowed growth in your child — and help them catch them up to their potential through a balanced diet that includes important nutrients to support growth.
Nutrition to Support Growth
A study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics has shown that slowed growth doesn't have to be permanent, with kids as old as three and four years successfully catching up through nutritional intervention and dietary counseling.
This study found that children who consumed two servings a day of the nutrition drink, PediaSure®, showed catch-up growth in weight and height. These children also showed improvements in their physical activity levels, according to parents, and a reduction in their number of sick days over the study period.
Studies like this show that balanced nutrition is essential to growth. And you can help with a few simple strategies to monitor your kid’s nutritional intake.
Here are five ways to make sure your child is growing healthy, strong and on track.
1. Pay Attention to Calories
Growth requires energy, which is why underweight children need extra calories in order to catch up, says Jennifer Williams, a research scientist at Abbott. She recommends that parents consult the dietary guidelines for Americans for age-specific recommendations for caloric intake. If necessary, add extra calories to those recommendations to help your child's growth patterns get back on track, but make sure they're not empty calories, i.e. junk food. Talk to a nutritionist or healthcare provider for guidance.
2. Fuel Up on Macros
When adding extra calories to help fuel growth, it's important to make sure those calories are coming from a healthy blend of macronutrients — carbohydrates, protein and fat — the nutrients the body needs in large quantities.
Protein, in particular, plays an essential role in many bodily functions, including recovery and repair of tissues in the muscles, skin, organs, blood and more. Williams recommends working in protein, such as lean meats and dairy products, at every meal or with healthy snacks to meet the daily recommendations.
3. Focus on Iron
During periods of growth, the body is highly dependent on iron, which helps to deliver oxygen to the body's cells. A paper in the Canadian Medical Association Journal shows that increasing iron intake, both through foods and nutritional supplements like PediaSure, can encourage growth in iron-deficient children. Iron-rich foods include meat, eggs, seafood, beans, peas, fortified cereals and dark, leafy greens.
4. Get More Zinc
The World Health Organization notes that mild to moderate zinc deficiency may be fairly common around the world. Zinc plays an important role in cell growth, and in children, deficiency can slow overall growth and may also reduce resistance to infections. Consider adding beef, spinach, shrimp or kidney beans to your child's meals, as they are all sources of zinc.
5. Don't Forget Vitamin D
Critical for the body's absorption of calcium, the sunshine vitamin promotes healthy bone formation and growth. Vitamin D deficiency is a common problem in children, but you can help get your kid’s levels where they need to be with extra outdoor playtime (sun exposure bolsters levels), vitamin-rich foods such as milk, dairy products and mushrooms, and, if needed, supplementation.
Nutrition and child development are closely connected, and though it might be easy to fall behind, it can be just as simple to catch up again with these tips in mind.
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Parents love to track their children's growth — and with good reason. This development can be an important indicator of how their overall health is shaping up. But kids' growth isn't always steady. There will likely be periods of rapid growth and times when growth slows or even plateaus.
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As a parent, you want your children to have the healthiest food possible, but good nutrition for kids goes beyond what's being served at the kitchen table today. Even though your kids might need your help now, they'll be making their own decisions about food before you know it. Jennifer Williams, MPH, pediatric nutrition research scientist with Abbott, shares how you can give them some direction for solid nutrition education.