‘Is My Child Too Skinny?’ How To Tell If Your Little One Has A Healthy Weight
What is normal and what is seen as unhealthy? Dr Sam Hay explains what parents need to look out for.
‘Is my child too skinny’? At some point in time as a parent, you might wonder. What is normal and what is seen as unhealthy? Dr Sam Hay explains what parents need to look out for.
There are many cultures around the world where being overweight is a sign of health and prosperity. And if you’re ‘normal’ weight or ‘skinny’, then you’re in fact seen as sick and unhealthy. And when it comes to our kids, Aussie parents seem to have a similar view: to be healthy, kids need to be all podgy and cuddly.
So if you’ve got a ‘skinny kid’ it’s hard not to be constantly worried about their weight, diet, and health. But the reality is that kids, like zucchinis for example, come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes which are all entirely normal. And before any parent panics, they need to look at the bigger picture.
So what are the pieces of the skinny kid puzzle we need to put together?
The first thing we need to understand is how a child’s body changes as they age.
We tend to think that the body develops gradually, but in fact it’s sporadic, going in fits and starts, where your kid’s growth alternates between growing ‘out’ for a while, then ‘up’ for a while.
And this means your kids will seem to go through ‘podgier’ and ‘skinnier’ phases.
The next issue is that body proportions change. Infants have a massive head and proportionately short torso and legs, meaning they appear shorter and more buddha like. As the years move on, head size changes little, but the torso then limbs start to lengthen, contributing to the ‘illusion’ that they are stretching out.
But there’s more to it than sporadic height changes, because the relatively short thick torso of infancy is also covered by extra fatty tissue. In fact, the fat layer under the skin that gives our bubs their cute baby rolls acts as a protective layer, designed to protect their fragile organs. It increases in thickness from birth to about nine months, then naturally starts to decrease as your child moves through the toddler and pre-school years so that by age five, the thickness of the fat layer is about half that of the nine-month-old.
So maybe your ‘skinny kid’ is just displaying a natural and normal pattern of growth – a combination of their body growing taller and their fat layer thinning out.
Having an understanding of how kids grow and develop is one thing, but what’s most important is making sure they are growing as we would expect them to. We need to know this to be able to determine whether everything is on track, or whether your child has actually lost weight.
Growth charts plot normal growth patterns over a set of lines called percentile lines, ranging from the 3rd to 97th percentile. The charts extend from birth to adulthood and allow the medical team to assess the pattern of expected growth as kids get older. This in turn allows us to make an assessment of whether kids are under or overweight; and whether they are putting on or losing weight based on their past growth.
So the first thing to do is grab your baby book and plot your child’s weight and height on their growth chart, then ask yourself a few questions.
- Are the weight and height measurements on roughly the same percentile?
- Is the pattern of growth over the last years (handful of months at least) following the same percentile curve?
If you answered yes to both of those questions, then you’ve got very little to worry about, because this shows that your child is progressing just as we’d expect. It’s ok for height and weight to be on different percentile curves, especially when changes over time follow along the given curve for each.
But if you’re not reassured by the above, ask the next question: has your child crossed more than one percentile line? If that’s the case, then the first thing to do is see your doctor to discuss what’s happening. Often there’s nothing to worry about, and we simply keen an eye on things, but your doctor can do a full check-up and determine the urgency of follow up.
And lastly whilst we are here, another question: what do mum and dad look like (well, what should they look like!)? Genetics play a major part in how our kids grow and develop, and must be taken into account when we make an overall assessment of growth and weight change.
If mum and dad are skinny, then chances are their kids will be. So maybe a big part of your child’s weight change is simply genetics.
The next piece of the skinny kid puzzle is to look at the bigger picture, so you may need to chat these points through with your GP, and potentially get them to give your child the once over.
Is any change in weight accompanied by health or overall development problems? Because the more issues there are, the more concerned we may need to be.
Perhaps there’s been a recent illness that led to low appetite and weight loss? If so, then a bit of reassurance, healthy eating, and some growth tracking may be all that you need to prove that things get back on track.
But if your child has been poorly for some time, or there are global issues with learning, behaviour, and development; then perhaps there could be an underlying disease, syndrome, or illness that needs management. By seeing your doctor they can do a full assessment and examination, and then put any weight change into context, which will then drive decisions for follow up. Maybe the next step from there is a set of basic blood tests or a paediatrician review.
Any review of the bigger picture wouldn’t be complete without delving into what your child is eating – the final piece needed to solve the skinny kid puzzle.
Kids with a wide and varied diet, drawing from all the food groups with plenty of FRESH foods are likely to be getting all the nutrients they need for healthy growth. Kids who eat just as much as their siblings or other kids at daycare are also likely to be consuming enough energy to keep the weight on.
Anytime your kids get a cold or flu they’ll lose their appetite for a few days (or weeks), so we’d expect a little weight loss. But once they recover we usually see that weight pick back up again.
But as the months go on with fussy eaters there can certainly be issues with keeping on the weight. By looking at growth, development, and diet your doctor can help work out how your child’s diet may be contributing to their growth overall. And if there’s any concern they may send you off to a paediatric dietitian for some tailored specialist advice.
The Final Word
As we have learnt, considering what to do with your ‘skinny kid’ needs context. As parents, if you were skinny as a kid, then yours is likely to be too. If they’re eating and developing well, then chances are there’s nothing to worry about.
But if there are issues with any aspect of development or behaviour, or there’s unexplained weight loss or deviation from their projected percentile growth, then it’s time for a check-up with your doctor.
Bottom line, ensure your child is consuming nutrient-rich foods, so they get all the vitamins, minerals, protein, fibre, and energy they need to grow. And remember – fast foods and lollies are SOMETIMES foods.
If you’re concerned about your child’s health, including their weight, please speak to your local health practitioner for advice.
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