The Relationship Between a Child's Percentile and Their Health

Parents are often concerned about their children's growth and development. One challenge is to understand the relationship between a child's percentile and their health. Learn more about this topic in this article!
The Relationship Between a Child's Percentile and Their Health

Last update: 16 May, 2021

There are different methods for measuring children’s growth. Finding the right tool to achieve this measurement has been the subject of numerous studies and updates over the years to facilitate the understanding of the relationship between a child’s percentile and their health.

Between 1997 and 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) conducted the Multicenter Growth Reference Study (MGRS). The aim was to generate new growth curves to assess the growth and development of infants and young children worldwide.

Thus, the MGRS collected primary growth data and information from approximately 8500 children from different ethnic backgrounds and cultural settings with the aim that:

“The new growth curves will provide a single international standard that represents the best description of physiological growth for all children from birth to age five, and establish the infant as the normative model for growth and development.”

Looking beyond charts and a child’s percentile to assess an infant’s health

A baby smiling during a pediatric appointment.
It’s important for parents to understand the information pediatricians provide regarding their child’s percentile according to their growth measurements.

It’s essential that every time a child goes to the pediatrician or family physician, the professional records growth measurements and makes sure parents understand this information. Also, knowing that the measurement charts undergo periodic updating (as new information becomes available) is also very positive.

The tables are, in general, indicative and should come hand in hand with the professional’s clinical judgment. Hence the importance of making growth curves that allow us to see the whole picture and not just the snapshot, which may be nice, but is sometimes more static.

Thus, the Argentine Society of Pediatrics emphasizes that the third edition of the Guidelines for the Evaluation of Physical Growth is an indispensable tool for pediatricians. In this sense, and in that same guide, the Nutrition Committee shared a message stating that:

“The attention and health care of children have new challenges. If we analyze those concerning nutrition, an initial point for improvement is that public health and also pediatricians -in the exercise of their profession- have the most suitable instrument for the timely detection of alterations in nutritional status.

What the curves and the data tell us

The information provided by the infant percentile and its relation to the child’s health is, in general, expressed in percentages.

This doesn’t in any way imply reducing our little one to a number or a quantity. The usefulness of these tools is to identify the existence of a proportion of area in which a group of children, by age and context, are or are not in the expected mean.

What if a child’s percentile is outside of the parameters?

A mother holding her baby girl during a pediatric appointment.

Being above the curves may or may not be cause for concern if the measurements aren’t accompanied by appropriate explanations within the framework of a trusting relationship.

Being able to discern whether growth is in line with a “normal” developmental process is a task for the health professional. However, it’s essential to have the opinion of the parents, who, in a way, are “experts” on their children because they’re attentive to their care.

Therefore, in this sense, although there are pre-established measures, each child is different. And factors such as genetics, environment, or diet have a great influence.

However, one warning sign is the existence of sudden changes in weight and height from one check-up to the next. If such changes occur relatively frequently, the specialist will most likely perform more specific tests on the child. The intention will be to try to find out why these changes in the infant’s development are occurring.

Likewise, another warning sign is that there’s a stagnation in growth. So, as in the previous case, finding out what’s happening will be necessary.

About a child’s percentile and their health

Overall, regular visits to the pediatrician to establish the relationship between the child’s percentile and their health are essential during the child’s growth and development.

However, if you have any questions about your child’s upbringing, it’s always best to consult a health professional.

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