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What can my baby's growth chart tell me?
Your baby's growth chart can give you a general picture of how your baby is developing physically. By comparing your baby's measurements – weight, length, and head circumference – to those of other children the same age and sex and to these same measurements from previous checkups, your child's doctor can determine whether your baby is growing in a healthy way.
But don't get too hung up on your baby's percentiles. Although the current growth charts are a vast improvement over earlier charts, they're not the last word on how your baby is doing. The most important thing is that your baby is growing at a steady, appropriate rate over time, not that she's hit some magic number.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that doctors use the charts from the World Health Organization (WHO) for the first 24 months of a child's life. The measurements in the WHO charts are based on breastfed infants and infants whose length is measured while they are lying down. After age 2, doctors typically use the CDC's growth charts, which are similar but based on different data.
The charts from both organizations show length in inches and centimeters as well as weight in pounds and kilograms. Both charts also use percentiles, which compare averages of children broken down by age.
You can see the charts here.
What does "percentile" mean in a growth chart?
This is easiest to explain by example. If your 3-month-old daughter is in the 40th percentile for weight, that means 40 percent of 3-month-old girls weigh the same as or less than your baby, and 60 percent weigh more.
The higher the percentile number, the bigger your baby is compared to other babies her same age. If your baby is in the 50th percentile for length, that means she falls right in the middle of the pack.
To chart your baby's growth at home, try our growth percentile calculator.
My baby is only in the 25th percentile. Isn't that small?
Percentiles in a growth chart aren't like grades in school. A lower percentile doesn't mean there's anything wrong with your baby.
Let's say both parents are shorter than average, and your baby grows up to have the same stature. It would be perfectly normal for her to rank consistently in the 10th percentile for height and weight as she grows up.
What's important to remember is that your doctor is watching how your baby grows, not just how much.
Babies tend to go through rapid growth spurts, during which they might put on a little extra weight or length. Other months they may grow only a fraction of what they normally do. Your child's doctor notes individual peaks and valleys, but she'll be more focused on the overall pattern of growth.
When should I worry about my baby's growth?
It could be cause for concern if your baby's percentile changes significantly. For example, if she's consistently been around the 50th percentile for weight and then suddenly drops into the 15th, your baby's doctor will want to figure out why. There could be a medical reason for the change that needs further evaluation.
A minor illness or a change in your baby's eating patterns might result in a smaller drop, in which case the doctor may just follow your baby's growth more closely for a while.
If your baby hasn't been sick but her weight gain is slowing down while she's still growing in length, your child's doctor may suggest increasing the number of feedings. You may have to go in for more frequent visits to make sure that your baby starts gaining weight again.
There are times when gaining or losing faster than usual is a good thing. If your baby was underweight, for example, it may be a good sign that she's gaining ounces faster than she's growing inches.
Also, being at one end of the growth spectrum isn't always a reason to worry. For example, if your baby is very short and both parents are relatively short, then it may be perfectly appropriate for her to be in the lowest 5 percent.
But if your baby is very short and both parents are average height or taller, or if your baby is very slender and both parents are average weight or larger, then the doctor will make sure that there's no problem with her growth (like a hormone deficiency or genetic problem).
Also, if your baby is in the top 5 percent for weight, her doctor will keep an eye on her growth – and possibly counsel you about her feedings – to make sure she isn't headed for obesity.
If your baby's head measurement is much smaller than average, the doctor makes sure that her brain is growing and developing normally because your baby's brain growth is reflected in the size of her skull. If her head circumference is much larger than average, she'll be further evaluated to make sure that he doesn't have excess fluid in the brain, a condition called hydrocephalus.
How much does birth weight determine future growth?
Birth weight seems to matter less than you might think. Genes, not newborn weight, generally determine adult size. Petite babies sometimes grow to be strapping adults, and large babies can become slender over the years.
A baby's parents are the best indicator – are you and your partner tall, short, or average? Slender, heavy, or medium? Chances are, your child will be similarly built as an adult.