How to Help When Your Child Is Underweight

We all worry about our children as they grow and develop. You hear a lot about kids being overweight these days, but some parents struggle with underweight children.

What’s a “Normal” Weight for Kids?

Let’s start with a look at the recommended weight for children.

Most doctors use Body Mass Index or this growth chart from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A child who falls below the 5th percentile is considered underweight. For example:

  • A 6-year-old who weighs about 36 or 37 pounds is in the 5th percentile.
  • A 10-year-old who weighs 55 pounds falls into the 5th percentile.
  • At the 5th percentile, thresholds for girls and boys are mostly the same.

These numbers do not account for height. Your doctor can give you a better idea of where your child falls on these charts by including stature. If your child is underweight, talk to your doctor about your child’s overall health and nutrition. Look for any nutritional deficiencies (anemia, lacking calcium or vitamin D), medication side effects, or unhealthy behaviors that may cause your child to not gain weight.

Genetics also play a role in being thin, and your child may simply have a higher-than-normal metabolism.

What Can I Do to Help My Child Gain Weight?

Although your first inclination may be to try help your child gain weight, remember that he or she will go through many growth spurts and changes over the years. Rather than focus on your child’s size, which may create unhealthy feelings, encourage the whole family to develop healthy habits. Talk to your child about nutrition, and how eating the right foods makes our bodies stronger.

Tips for helping your underweight child develop healthy eating habits

Healthy Eating Habits for Kids

First, take inventory of your child’s current eating habits:

  • What is he or she getting too much of? Too little of?
  • What will he or she eat or not eat?

Then develop an eating schedule based on your child’s needs and habits. He or she may not be able to sit down and eat a lot at once. Instead, offer multiple, nutrient-dense snacks throughout the day with three modest-sized meals, for example.

Make the calories your child consumes count:

  • Go for nuts, seeds, cheese, fruit, and whole-grain bread or crackers for snacks.
  • Offer strawberries with vanilla yogurt for dipping after school.
  • Spread peanut butter on a whole-grain tortilla, top with banana slices, and wrap it up for breakfast on the go.
  • At dinner, opt for lean meats or seafood with vegetables and whole grains.
  • For a picky eater, you may need to be a little sneakier. Does your child only eat macaroni and cheese? Try steaming and pureeing cauliflower and mixing it into the cheese sauce. Start with small amounts so he or she won’t notice.
  • Bake your own muffins and cookies to include ingredients with more power, such as ground flax seed or wheat germ.

RELATED: Healthy Eating for Busy Families

Exercises for Kids

As you focus on food, don’t overlook exercise. More movement can build your child’s appetite and muscle mass. Take lessons, ride a bike, or play games in the yard — no matter the weather (splashing around in puddles can make for great exercise, too). Make a point to help your child get at least 30 minutes of exercise each day.

By focusing on health, you’ll help your child stay strong with a positive body image.

Find more information by speaking to the experts at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. To make an appointment, call 412-692-PEDS (7337).