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Early Signs of Malnourishment In Children

Medically reviewed by Regina Victoria Boyles, MD · Pediatrics

Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jan 15, 2023

Early Signs of Malnourishment In Children

As parents, we make it a point to intervene immediately when we see signs that our kids are unwell. When they cough, develop a fever or appear weak, we tend to act right away, not wanting their condition to worsen. But, besides the symptoms of illnesses, we must also note the early signs of malnourishment. This is because malnutrition, when unaddressed, can have a significant impact on their growth and development.

Why it’s Crucial to Spot the Early Signs of Malnourishment

Before we list down the early signs of malnourishment in children, let’s first quickly define malnutrition.

Malnutrition is an imbalance between the energy and nutrients we need and take. Malnourished kids can either be undernourished, overweight or obese, or significantly lacking specific vitamins and nutrients in their body (micronutrient deficiencies).

Without intervention, malnutrition can lead to serious health risks, impaired growth and development, poor academic performance, and even mental health issues.

6 Hints That Your Child May Be Malnourished

The following are indicators that your child may be experiencing malnutrition:

Weight changes

The first sign that will clue you in about possible malnutrition is a noticeable change in their weight.

It’s normal for toddlers to lose the “chubby” look as they grow taller, but kids should have a steady weight gain. If your child is on the verge of malnourishment or is already experiencing malnutrition, he or she might:

  • Have an unexplained weight loss
  • Gain some weight, but the rate is slower than expected.
  • Be obese or overweight (which a doctor determines by checking their BMI)


One of the signs of malnutrition in kids is stunting, where their height is short for their age.

Experts say normal growth varies for each child, but typically, from 6 to 12 years old, a child’s height increases by about 6 to 7 centimeters per year.

In case you feel that your little one is not getting taller like they are supposed to, consult their pediatrician. A usual clue is when they are not outgrowing their old clothes.

They are less active than their peers.

Malnutrition often leaves a child weak and seemingly always tired, which makes them uncharacteristically inactive.

Instead of joining their peers in physical games, they would much rather stay seated. Parents might also notice that they appear sleepy during the day or sleep more than usual.

Of course, we cannot discount the possibility that a child simply enjoys being alone, so the benchmark here would be if they are less active than usual.

Frequent sickness

If your child doesn’t get sick often, and then suddenly it’s as if they are always unwell, bring them to the doctor for a check-up.

You see, malnutrition makes children more vulnerable to childhood illnesses. What’s more alarming is that malnourished kids take a longer time to recover because they have imbalances in nutrients.

early signs of malnourishment

Mood shifts

Sure, kids often have times when they are naughty or stubborn, but the effects of malnutrition go way beyond that.

According to experts, some of the signs of malnutrition in kids are anxiety, mood swings, and even mental health issues like depression.

Complaints of specific health problems

And finally, the early signs of malnourishment in children also include specific health concerns that may point out micronutrient deficiencies. Examples include:

  • Night-blindness due to vitamin A deficiency
  • Anemia because of lack of iron or vitamin B in the diet
  • Weak bones due to calcium insufficiency
  • Seeing any of these signs in children is a red flag, so set up an appointment with the doctor as soon as possible.

    Final thoughts

    If you want to assess your kids further, you can review their test scores and talk to their teachers. This is because poor academic performance is one of the possible effects of malnutrition.

    Finally, please keep in mind that while these symptoms could indicate that your child is malnourished, other conditions may be causing them, too, and that’s why it’s best to bring them to the doctor.

    Learn more about Childhood Malnutrition here. 


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Regina Victoria Boyles, MD


    Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jan 15, 2023

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