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Malnutrition in Infants & Toddlers

By Laura Wallace Henderson ; Updated June 13, 2017

Even though malnourishment in young children is more common in developing countries, nutritional deficiencies can also affect American children. According to the Child Welfare League of America, about 2.9 million children in the United States frequently eat too little or go without food for an entire day. Malnourishment can cause a multitude of symptoms and health problems, especially in growing children and young babies.


A diet deficient in energy, protein, vitamins and minerals can lead to malnutrition in children. This deficiency may occur due to a lack of available food sources, an inability to absorb nutrients or poor feeding. Infants that lack interest in feeding may have an underlying medical condition that interferes with appetite. Metabolic disorders, structural problems and neurological disorders can result in poor feeding habits in infants and young children. Factors that may contribute to poor feeding include premature birth, newborn jaundice, infant botulism and congenital hypothyroidism.


A diet that lacks sufficient energy and protein usually leads to deficiencies of essential nutrients. Malnutrition may first present as marasmus, a condition that involves hair loss, apathy, loss of muscle tissue and darkening of the skin. Stunting is sign of malnutrition that involves a slow rate of growth compared to other children of the same age. Kwashiorkor involves malnutrition that can cause liver enlargement, edema, abdominal swelling, discolored hair and a blotchy skin rash.

Nutritional Requirements

Like adults, children require a certain amount of nutrients to support the health and maintenance of body systems and cells. Infants up to six months of age require about 9.1 grams of protein and 60 grams of carbohydrates per day, while infants between 6 and 12 months need about 11 grams of protein and 95 grams of carbohydrates per day. Toddlers between the ages of one and three years require about 13 grams of protein and 130 grams of carbohydrates daily.


Failure to thrive and loss of weight can cause serious complications in young children. Talk to your doctor if you think your child may have a nutritional deficiency or shows any symptoms of malnutrition. Without prompt treatment, malnutrition in infants and toddlers can cause permanent physical and mental stunting, minimizing the possibility of your child reaching his full potential.

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