Parents’ Guide to Helping Your Baby with Slow Growth: Expert Tips and Advice

Published by Mary Anthony, RN on Mar 03, 2023

Pediatric developmental nurse answers questions on slow growth, lack of growth, weight loss

Expectant parents have all sorts of worries leading up to birth, but feeding your baby and slow growth usually aren’t among them. You assume your newborn will suck from the breast or a bottle. When this doesn’t happen easily, bringing home your baby becomes more complicated.

Babies with slow growth, lack of growth or weight loss typically spent some time in the NICU and may even have a tube to supplement feeding.

In many cases I see, parents are sent home without a feeding plan when their babies are discharged.

What causes slow growth, lack of growth or weight loss in infants

There are many reasons infants experience slow growth, lack of growth or weight loss, which can all sometimes be called failure to thrive. Common ones include:
  • Premature birth
  • Trouble latching
  • Reflux
  • Medical conditions

I’ve seen countless overwhelmed parents caring for newborns who require extra support for feeding. This is challenging in the best of circumstances when parents have a lot of help from family and friends.

It’s nearly impossible for those with fewer resources.

Families need more support

slow growth baby with bottle

First time parents are inundated with an overwhelming amount of new information. The learning curve for managing a newborn is significantly compounded when the baby has slow growth, a lack of growth or weight loss. This is often called “failure to thrive.”

Parents of these babies often lack all the tools and information they need to help their babies grow and thrive.

It’s my job in Maricopa County, Arizona to fill that gap.

In one telehealth visit, I spoke to a mom whose baby was born at 24 weeks and had an NG-tube. Through our conversation, I learned she had a formula prescription, but she didn’t have a feeding plan.

The mom didn’t know when to increase the amount of formula, when to offer oral feedings or even when to visit a gastroenterologist (GI). I helped her develop a plan and get an appointment. Her experience wasn’t unusual.

When a baby leaves the hospital with a feeding tube or after treatment for weight loss or slow growth, hospital doctors assume that pediatricians will ensure the baby’s feeding needs are met. Pediatricians assume the GI manages the feeding plan. And the GI often doesn’t see the baby for months.

More support for these families can make the transition to home easier.

In Arizona, any baby who’s in the NICU for five days or more is eligible for support from a pediatric developmental nurse for up to three years. This includes at least four visits a year in the first year.

I’ve seen firsthand how support is crucial for overwhelmed parents, especially within 14 days of discharge.

Customized care to help babies with slow growth thrive

The causes of slow growth and weight loss are many. This makes one-on-one consultations essential to diagnosing the problem and providing customized support.

In one extreme case, a baby was admitted to the hospital for feeding issues and weight loss. After discharge, I made a home visit and asked the mom to show me how she feeds the baby. She only had one bottle and a nipple caked with dried powder. This baby was sent to the hospital for feeding issues, but nobody assessed the mom to see what she was actually doing at home to feed the baby.

In another case, I met with a mom whose baby was discharged without adequate supplies for her baby’s feeding tube. She adjusted the baby’s formula and was adding her own mixes. She needed more adhesive to keep the NG-tube inserted, so she used adult Tegaderm. Still, the tube wasn’t staying in place. While they had already visited the pediatrician, the mom hadn’t communicated her challenges because she didn’t know any differently.

It’s these kinds of early struggles that can make developing pediatric feeding disorder (PFD) more likely, even for those children who outgrow their initial challenges. Getting these families access to early support can make all the difference.

How parents can improve feedings at home in cases of slow growth, weight loss or feeding tubes

How to improve feedings for slow growth

Ask for a feeding plan
Key to helping parents deal with feeding challenges is providing better instructions when children are discharged from the hospital. NICU nurses are great about showing parents how to insert the NG tube, check placement and when to call for help.

Be sure to also ask when to increase the calories, when to visit a GI and when your child no longer needs the tube.

Get emotional support
With all the focus on feeding a baby with slow growth, lack of growth or weight loss, it’s hard to focus on self care. But it’s essential.

Moms need rest and breaks, especially those who are postpartum and are double feeding – pumping and giving bottles. Rally your support among family and friends. Don’t expect to be able to handle everything alone.

Set up a treatment space in your home
If your baby has a feeding tube, it’s important to designate a treatment space. Make sure this isn’t a crib, couch or play area. This helps your baby know what to expect, rather than fear having the tube inserted at any point in the day.

Hold your baby during feedings
Whether you’re bottle feeding or tube feeding, it’s important that you hold your baby during feedings. This helps with bonding and makes your child feel more comfortable eating.

Get in touch with Feeding Matters
If you’re struggling with feeding challenges, you don’t have to walk this road alone. At Feeding Matters, we have many resources for parents to answer questions and provide social and emotional support. One of our most helpful support programs is peer to peer mentoring, Power of Two.

Ensuring parents get support for slow growth, lack of growth and weight loss is crucial to mitigating the risks of developing pediatric feeding disorder (PFD). Not all parents will have access to a pediatric developmental nurse, home health or coordinated support between their pediatrician and a GI. It’s essential that parents get the information they need from the start, before being released from the NICU.

Babies and their parents depend on it.

Mary Anthony has been a pediatric nurse for nearly 40 years and is head of the High Risk Perinatal Program for Maricopa County in Arizona.