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Growing Pains: What Baby Growth Charts Really Mean

Growing Pains: What Baby Growth Charts Really Mean
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WebMD Feature

Parents are a competitive bunch. So when the pediatrician whips out a growth chart and ranks baby's height and weight in percentiles, it's easy to wonder if something's wrong.

Tenth percentile? Something must be stunting his growth. The 95th percentile? Omigod, she's huge, so much bigger than the neighbor's little bundle. Many breast-feeding moms worry needlessly -- and even give up on the breast -- because their babies fall in the low percentiles for several months compared to bottle-fed tots. (The breast-feeders catch up later and have fewer health problems in the long run.)

But growth percentile rankings aren't meant to pit your kid against the neighbor's; they're designed to help doctors ferret out potential health or growth problems. No matter where your child fits on the chart, the important thing is that height and weight are proportional, and that growth progresses at a fairly steady pace over time.

The Yellow Springs Standard

"One mark on a growth curve means nothing," says Tampa, Fla., pediatrician F. Lane France, a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "You're more interested in the trend. You'd like to see them at a certain percentile and then stay along the curve."

With children under 2 years, you have to take the percentile rankings with an extra grain of salt. The current standards for infant growth were published back in 1977 and based on a limited survey of babies born in Yellow Springs, Ohio, between the 1920s and mid-1970s. The babies were all white and mostly bottle-fed, so the charts don't take into account differences in growth rates between bottle and breast-fed babies or major changes in ethnicity in the United States since the '70s.

Experts believe that Hispanic kids are genetically more likely to be heavier, for example, but the current charts don't reflect this. And when Asian children are fed an American diet, they tend to grow faster than their parents, who ate a traditional diet. In general, nutritionists say, diet seems to play a bigger role than genetics when it comes to childhood growth patterns.

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