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How nutrition can fuel optimal growth in children

Learn how to spot slowed growth and help your child get back on track with optimized nutrition.

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.

So, whether you're tracking your child's height on a wall or carefully jotting down measurements in a journal, how can you tell if their growth and development is on track, especially with regard to slowed growth?

According to Jennifer Williams, MPH, an Abbott Peadiatric Scientist, there are several key indicators of healthy growth in kids. And the best way to make sure your child is hitting those is by providing good nutrition from day one.

What Constitutes Healthy Growth?

When a child is slow to grow or is experiencing a growth plateau, it's easy to get discouraged by the numbers. But inches and kilograms aren't always indicative of optimal growth. In fact, healthy growth is measured by what's normal for your child. When your pediatrician measures your child's height and weight, they are looking for a consistent trend — not a magic number.

For instance, if your child has always been in the 25th percentile, there's no cause for concern as long as they stay on that curve of the growth chart. However, a sudden drop to the 10th percentile could be a red flag.1 And, even though we tend to focus on height, it's not always the most important indicator of healthy growth.

"When a child is behind in growth early on, changes in weight are often the first clue," explains Williams. "But when there's chronic undernutrition, height can be affected, leading to slowed growth if a child is undernourished over long periods of time."

How Can Nutrition Affect Child Growth and Development?

Slowed growth can have far-reaching effects, such as impacting a child's activity levels, performance in school, and may even increase their risk for chronic diseases later in life.1,2 If you're worried your child's growth may be falling behind, take solace in knowing that many factors affect their size. The first is genetics. For instance, if you or your partner has a small build, it's likely — and perfectly normal — to have a child whose height and weight are below average.

Nutrition will also affect growth and development. To reach their full growth potential, children need to consume sufficient calories and key nutrients.1-3 While starting a nutritious diet during pregnancy is optimal for initial healthy child development, continuing after they're born can also make a big difference.

Are Some Nutrients More Beneficial in a Growing Child's Diet?

Good nutrition can go a long way in supporting your child's growth but knowing where to start can be tough. Williams recommends beginning by taking a close look at how your child is eating, especially if you suspect they're lagging in growth.

"Are they eating what they've always been eating or has something changed? If you see that your child is eating poorly, or you know that they aren't getting all the nutrition they need because they are not eating a variety of foods, adding a nutritional supplement like PediaSure® could help," she says.

When choosing a nutritional supplement between meals, look for one that provides quality calories as well as nutrients that are proven to support growth, such as:4-7

High quality protein to support muscle and bone growth and development.

Protein can also be found in meats, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt and beans.

Calcium and vitamins D and K to help build strong bones.

Find calcium in dairy foods, almonds and dark greens like spinach; find vitamin D in fatty fish, egg yolks and fortified milk, and vitamin K in leafy green vegetables like kale, and avocado.

For busy parents, putting nutritious meals on the table isn't always easy. But Williams emphasizes that nutrition shakes shouldn't be used in place of a meal — no matter how hectic life gets. "When kids aren't getting enough calories, we really want them to learn to eat whole foods well first," she explains. "Give them the chance to develop those healthy habits by eating meals with the rest of the family, and then add in a nutritional shake for a snack, if needed."

References: 1. Huynh DTT, et al. J Hum Nutr Diet. 2015;28(6):623-35. 2. Pérez-Rodrigo C, et al. Public Health Nutr 2001;4(1A):131-139. 3. Nicklas TA, et al. J Am Diet Assoc 2008;108:1038-1047. 4. Golden NH, et al. Pediatrics 2014;134(4):e1229-e1243. 5. Zelman KM. Kid Nutrition: Quick Tips for Parents. Available at: Date Accessed: April 2021. 6. Top Foods for Calcium and Vitamin D. Available at: Date Accessed: April 2021. 7. Food Sources of Vitamin K. Available at: Date Accessed: April 2021.