Malnutrition In Children: Causes, Symptoms & Remedies


Good nutrition is very important for the growth of your child, especially, during the early years. Nutritious food is vital throughout an individual’s life, but it is most critical from the time of conception of the child till the child is two years of age, since pregnancy and early years after birth are very critical for the development of brain and other vital organs. It is important to have a balanced diet which is rich in nutrients such as vitamins, calcium, iron, fats and carbohydrates to ensure overall development of the child.


What is malnutrition?

Malnutrition is the condition when your child does not receive essential nutrients, minerals and calories which help in development of vital organs in adequate quantities. Nutrients are important for your child to lead a disease free and healthy life. Lack of sufficient nutrition can lead to several disorders, both physical and behavioural. Malnutrition and hunger are not the same although the two might be associated. Hunger is felt when the stomach in empty whereas malnutrition is the lack of sufficient nutrients. Malnourished kids can be prone to deficiencies which result in stunted growth and chronic sickness.


What Are The Types Of Malnutrition In Children

Malnutrition is a cause of serious concern globally with more children falling prey to malnourishment each year. The effects of malnutrition can be devastating and far reaching and can cause stunted growth, mental retardation, GI tract infections, anaemia and death. Malnutrition is not only be caused due to lack of nutrients but also due to excessive intake of the same and hence a balanced diet is very important for the child to be nourished and healthy.

Forms Of Malnourishment

Malnutrition is caused by insufficient intake of essential micro-nutrients and the forms of malnourishment are divided into four categories.


As the name suggests, this is a condition where a child does not grow in weight/height in accordance with the age and remains underweight due to wasting, stunting or both. This form of malnourishment is also known as growth failure malnutrition. While the deficiencies in weight can be corrected if the nutrition needs of the child are improved, correcting deficiency in height is difficult.


Also known as chronic malnutrition, the condition of stunting in the child begins before birth due to poor health of the mother during pregnancy leading to abnormal and disproportionate growth in the child. Stunting happens over a long period of time and hence has long lasting consequences. The main reasons behind stunting of the baby are poor breast feeding, insufficient supply of nutrients to the body and continued infections. Stunting is dangerous because it becomes irreversible after a certain age. It, therefore, becomes very important for pregnant women to ensure proper health during the pregnancy and extensive care of the child after birth.

Micronutrient Deficiency

Micronutrient deficiency or malnutrition signifies the lack of essential vitamins such as vitamin A, B, C and D in the body along with shortage of folate, calcium, iodine, zinc and selenium. Micronutrient deficiency is caused by prolonged lack of these nutrients in the body. Each of these nutrients aid in the development and functioning of critical organs in the body and deficiency of the same can lead to poor growth and diseases such as anaemia, poor brain development, impaired thyroid functioning, rickets, weak immunity, nerve degeneration, poor vision and poor bone development.


Wasting or acute malnutrition is the situation of sudden and drastic weight loss and leads to three types of clinical malnutrition:

  1. Kwashiorkor: In this condition, the under-nourished child looks plump because of fluid retention (bilateral pitting oedema) in legs and feet.
  2. Marasmus: This type of malnutrition occurs when the body fat and tissues degenerate at a drastic rate to compensate for the lack of nutrients in the body. This slows down the activity of the immune system and internal processes in the body.
  3. Marasmic-Kwashiorkar: This is a mix of both marasmus and kwashiorkor and characterized by severe wasting as well as oedema.


Correct diagnosis of a malnourished baby and identification of the malnourishment is important so that necessary corrective measures can be taken to prevent long lasting and adverse effects of malnourishment.

What Can Cause Malnutrition In Your Child

Malnutrition can be caused by lack of essential nutrients or by excessive consumption of the same. It is important to have a balanced diet in order to maintain sufficient nutrient levels in the body . Following are the causes which can lead to malnutrition in your child.

  • Poor Diet: Lack of sufficient food intake can cause deficiency of necessary nutrients resulting in malnourishment of the child. A diet which contains food items that are indigestible and harmful can cause a loss of appetite leading to malnutrition.
  • Irregular Diet: Not consuming food at proper time and regular intervals can lead to indigestion and malnutrition.
  • Digestive Disorders: Some children might have digestive disorders such as Crohn’s disease which limits the ability of the body to absorb nutrients even though healthy food is consumed.
  • Lack Of Breastfeeding: Breastfeeding a new born is very important as breastmilk supplies important nutrients to the baby which form the base for the child’s development. Lack of breastfeeding can expose the child to malnourishment.
  • Diseases: Children with bodily diseases are prone to malnutrition and require special care and regulated food habits.
  • Lack Of Physical Activity: Lack of sufficient physical activity can slow down the digestive process leading to malnutrition.

Other causes for malnutrition in children under five years include premature birth, excessive vomiting or diarrhoea, heart defects from birth and other long term diseases.

Signs And Symptoms Of Malnutrition In Children

Signs and symptoms of malnutrition in infants and children depend on the kind of nutritional deficiency the child has. Some of the signs and symptoms of malnutrition include:

  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Poor immune system increasing susceptibility of infections
  • Dry and scaly skin
  • Poor, stunted growth
  • Bloated stomach
  • Longer recovery time from wounds, infections and illness
  • Reduced muscle mass
  • Slow behavioural and intellectual development
  • Impairment in mental function and digestive problems

How Is Malnutrition Diagnosed In kids

Timely diagnosis of malnutrition is very important in order to prevent life effecting consequences. Malnutrition Universal Screening Tool (MUST) is a quick screening tool to identify whether a person is at risk of malnutrition and helps detection of malnutrition in elderly persons. In case of kids, the doctor examines the height and weight of your child and compares it with the ideal weight and height for kids of the same age group.

Diagnostic procedures to determine malnutrition in kids include:

Measurement Of Mid-Upper Arm Diameter: If the circumference of the mid-upper arm is below 110 mm, it is a clear indication of malnutrition in your child.

Blood Tests: Specific blood tests such as blood counts, blood glucose, blood protein or albumin levels and other routine blood tests can diagnose the condition of malnutrition in kids.

Other tests such as thyroid function tests, tests to determine levels of calcium, zinc and vitamins are also recommended by doctors as they help determine condition of malnutrition in kids.

What Are The Effects Of Malnutrition On Children

Malnutrition can have long lasting and devastating effects on children if the condition is not diagnosed and treated in time. Following are the consequences of malnutrition in childhood

  • Stunting: Stunting is one of the long lasting effects of malnutrition in kids. Malnutrition can restrict a child’s ability to grow normally restricting the height and weight of the child. Stunted growth can be permanent and irreversible.
  • Marasmus: A severe protein-energy deficiency that can lead to malnutrition. Marasmus is also known as energy deficiency and is characterized by severe weight loss, thin and papery skin, hair loss and periods of apathy and fatigue.
  • Kwashiorkor: Kwashiorkor is also resultant of severe protein-energy deficiency. Rashes, water retention, brittle hair and bloated belly are some of the symptoms of this condition. If not treated, this condition can lead to coma and death.
  • Malnutrition in children can also lead to conditions such as anaemia, weak bones, weak immune system, scurvy or organ failure depending on nutrient that is deficient.

How To Treat Malnutrition In Kids

In order to treat malnutrition it is important to identify the root cause first. Once the root cause is established, the doctor will suggest specific changes to the diet plan to include supplements and correct quantities of food items to rectify under or over nourishment. Many of the adverse effects of malnutrition can be rectified and reversed if action is taken in time.

Home Remedies

During the initial stages of malnutrition, proper care and consumption of a balanced and nutrient rich diet at home will help your child recover from the condition. Some home remedies to recover from malnutrition include:

  • Consumption of nutritious food at regular intervals
  • Ensuring a balanced diet for your child
  • Following the diet plan suggested by the doctor
  • Drinking more than 1.5 litres of water daily

Medication At Hospital

Depending on the severity and cause of malnutrition, the doctor will suggest necessary steps to recover from the condition.

  • Medication and dietary supplements for the child
  • Usage of feeding tubes for kids who are unable to eat on their own
  • Intensive care and continuous monitoring in case of severely malnutritioned kids

How To Avoid Malnutrition In Kids

The most common root cause for malnutrition in kids is insufficient intake of nutrients and lack of exercise. For prevention of malnutrition in children, parents must

  • ensure that infants receive enough breast milk
  • see to it that if the mother is facing an issue with lactation, the baby’s meals should be supplemented with formula milk
  • ensure that the child receives the right balance of nutrients through healthy food intake and dietary supplements
  • ensure that the child is physically active

Significant Nutrients Needed To Prevent Malnutrition

The diet of the child must include the following nutrients to prevent malnutrition:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Protein
  • Iron
  • Vitamins
  • Fats
  • Calcium
    Nutritional Needs Of Children

Foods That Will Help To Avoid Malnourishment In hildren

  • Fruits and vegetables – at least 5-6 a day
  • Dairy products such as milk, cheese, yogurt
  • Rice, potato, cereals and other food items with starch
  • Meat, fish, eggs, beans and food which are rich in proteins
  • Fats – oils, nuts, seeds

What Are The Nutritional Needs Of Children

Following are the daily nutritional needs of children:

  1. Two servings each day of fruits and vegetables.
  2. Four servings of whole grain food such as buckwheat, brown bread or multi grain breads.
  3. Three servings of full glass of milk. Cheese, puddings, curd can be some of the alternatives.
  4. Two servings of protein rich food such as eggs, fishes, lentils.
  5. Daily supplements of vitamins and minerals as prescribed by the medical consultant.

Can Fussy Eating Make My Child Malnourished

It is a myth that fussy or picky eaters are more likely to face malnutrition. While fussy eating can be tricky, children generally receive sufficient nutrients even if they are fussy eaters and are not particularly keen on following a diet plan. Your child will receive sufficient nutrients as long as a particular group of food is not neglected completely. Parents should ensure a proper mix of healthy foods and limit the consumption of unhealthy and fast food for their children.

Malnutrition in children can be restricted by following simple diet plans and ensuring that eating habits of the child are disciplined and monitored by the parents. In case the child suffers from malnourishment, it is important to root cause the reason and take immediate corrective actions to avoid long lasting and irreversible damage to the child.

Also read: Anaemia In KIds: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment