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4 Signs of Undernutrition in Kids

Medically reviewed by Regina Victoria Boyles, MD · Pediatrics

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

4 Signs of Undernutrition in Kids

Undernutrition can lead to numerous adverse effects on a child’s growth and development. It results in fat and muscle loss, increased risk of illnesses, reduced stamina, and it also affects mental health. For this reason, catching the signs of undernutrition in kids is crucial. In this article, we will talk about the indicators of an undernourished child.

Issues in the height and weight

One of the most notable signs of undernourishment in kids is an issue in their height, weight, or both.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), undernutrition has several sub-forms, including underweight, stunting, and wasting.

  • Stunting occurs when the child has a short height for their age. Reports say that stunting holds children back from hitting their physical and even cognitive milestones.
  • Wasting happens in kids who have low weight for their height. This severe kind of weight loss often occurs in kids who have not had enough food for an extended period. However, it can also happen in children with chronic illnesses that cause weight loss.
  • Underweight denotes low weight for age. Underweight children could be stunted, wasted, or both.
  • Of course, early undernutrition doesn’t lead to severe stunting or wasting. The first thing that parents will notice is that their child is either losing or not gaining weight.

    To make it easier for you to monitor your child’s height and weight, keep a record or chart of their growth. Similarly, check if they are outgrowing their old clothes as they should.

    signs of undernutrition

    Lack of energy

    Another evident sign of undernutrition is a lack of energy.

    You see, young children are often energetic. In fact, many parents find it hard to keep their kids still—what with their curious and playful nature.

    However, undernourishment leaves kids with inadequate calories and nutrients to keep their stamina. Hence, they will appear weak and tired. You might also observe that they sleep longer than usual.

    There are many ways to check for this sign of undernourishment, but the most common is observing if they are playing as much as before.

    Absenteeism due to frequent illnesses

    Another hint that your child is undernourished (or close to becoming one) is their school performance.

    You might notice that their test scores are lower, or they are failing even their most liked subjects. The teacher may also send you a note about a worrying decline in their academic performance.

    They may have lower grades because of bouts of illnesses that cause them to miss classes. Remember that undernutrition makes them vulnerable to infections like respiratory and diarrheal diseases; it also significantly increases their recovery and wound healing time.

    Other signs of undernutrition

    Undernourished kids may also show other signs, including:

    • Brittle or thin hair
    • Dry skin
    • Irritability
    • Nail cracks
    • Peeling skin
    • Swollen extremities
    • Inability to keep warm

    How Can Parents Intervene

    The treatment for undernutrition depends on how severe it is. For example, severe wasting can be life-threatening, and often, kids will not have the strength to eat. To treat it, the doctor will admit the child to the hospital and give them intravenous or tube feedings.

    However, if we catch the signs of undernutrition early on, we will most likely prevent a severe case. The doctor may advise you to:

    Keep track of your child’s diet

    Ensuring that kids eat the right kinds of foods at the right time prevents undernourishment. The “right kind” means that they eat various nutritious foods: fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean meat, and dairy. “Right time” often means 3 main meals and healthy snacks in between.

    Another challenging part for parents is when their kids refuse to eat. The reasons for this vary: they could be picky eaters, or are experiencing appetite loss or health problems that prevent them from eating (dental problems, difficulty swallowing, etc.)

    signs of undernutrition

    Match their caloric intake with their needs

    Another possibility why kids become undernourished is because they consume fewer calories than they need.

    Remember that young kids grow steadily and are more physically active. Take note if they ask for seconds during mealtime; it could be that they are still hungry.

    Give them vitamin supplements

    And finally, to prevent micronutrient deficiency, the doctor may give your child vitamin supplements. They will also encourage you to choose fortified foods whenever you can.

    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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