Is My Child Short?

Is your child's small stature something to worry about?

Many parents have concerns about their child's height. Read the answers to these frequently asked questions and learn what growth to expect from your child.

What is "short"?

"Short" is a descriptive term for a person whose height is considered significantly below the normal range of measurements for that age, gender, racial group, or family. Short stature is also a statistical term, generally referring to people who are shorter than 97 percent of their age- and sex-matched peers. Thus, in any population, nearly 3 percent of people will meet this statistical definition, most with no discernible medical abnormality.

Is my child too short?

Height perception is influenced by a wide variety of factors, such as culture, gender, family background, and psychological state. Although parents sometimes worry if their child is the "right" size in comparison to her classmates, the more important question is whether your child is continuing to grow at a normal rate. If your child's doctor suspects a problem -- such as a growth rate that had been proceeding normally but has recently flattened -- he or she may track your child's measurements carefully over several months to determine whether the growth pattern suggests a possible health problem or is just a variation of normal.

Remember that children whose parents are relatively short will probably find themselves in the lower portions of the growth charts throughout their lives. Many other children who are short for their age will be normal in height as adults and have no disorder other than some delay in the timing of their growth.

How can I ensure my child's growth?

Normal growth is aided by good nutrition, enough sleep, and regular physical exercise. A malnourished child may be pushed off her "natural" growth rate. Parents should be aware, however, that a child's growth pattern is largely genetically programmed. Pushing a child with "short genes" to eat extra food or greater than recommended amounts of vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients will not increase the child's height.

What could be causing my child's slow growth?

Most short-statured children fall into one of these two categories:

  • Familial short stature: These children have inherited genes for short stature from their parents. Despite being shorter than average, these children grow at a normal rate and are otherwise healthy, showing no symptoms of medical problems. They generally enter puberty at an average age and reach a final adult height similar to that of their parents. In general, no treatment for these children is recommended or known to be effective in significantly increasing their final adult height.
  • Constitutional growth delay: Also passed down genetically, constitutional growth delay appears in children usually of average size in early infancy. It causes them to undergo a period of slower-than-average growth between 6 months and 2 years of age, leading to their falling behind on the growth chart. After about age 2 or 3, they will start to grow at a normal childhood rate until they reach puberty and continue to grow at an older age, letting them "catch up" to their peers in final adult height. There is no treatment necessary for this condition.

Can being short signify a medical problem?

If the doctor finds your child is growing too slowly or not at all, further testing may be appropriate and treatment may be indicated. Though responsible for only a small percentage of impaired growth, there are a variety of medical conditions that can stunt growth and result in short stature.

  • Chronic illness in children: Illness affecting the heart, lungs, intestines or kidneys can slow growth. The recognition and proper treatment of the underlying condition is the most effective means to restore growth in these children.
  • Inadequate nutrition: Insufficient nutrients can also can impede the attainment of adequate height, especially when it occurs during infancy and puberty.
  • Significant psychosocial stresses: If occurring in infancy, these stresses can impede the rapid growth usually seen in a baby.
  • Insufficient production of hormones: Two hormones often involved are thyroid hormone and growth hormone. Specific treatments are available for these children.
  • Genetic disorders: Some disorders may affect the growth of the skeleton. In girls, a cause of unexplained growth failure in approximately one out of every 2,000 female births is the genetic condition called Turner's syndrome. In this syndrome, the absence of all or part of one sex chromosome is associated with impaired growth and ovarian failure and requires treatment through hormonal replacement.

Sources: The Endocrine Society and the Hormone Foundation; American Medical Association

Copyright © 2002

Updated 1/03.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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