Allow underweight kids to be ‘messy’ with their food

Parents should allow underweight children to be messy with their food, health chiefs have urged.

New guidance from NICE said ‘relaxed and enjoyable’ mealtimes would encourage youngsters to eat more.

It also said families should sit down and eat together to help children who are skinnier than they should be for their age put on weight.

Under the new regime, GPs can talk to parents directly if they are concerned about the growth of their children.

Faltering growth, slow weight gain in early childhood, has been linked to a higher risk of infections and a lower IQ.

Health chiefs have urged parents to allow underweight children to be messy with their food

Professor Gillian Leng, deputy chief executive of NICE, said: ‘Having a child with faltering growth can be distressing for parents and carers.

‘However, simple things such as encouraging relaxed and enjoyable feeding and mealtimes, eating together as a family or even allowing young children to be “messy” with their food can help encourage them to eat.

‘This guideline should also help healthcare professionals identify more complex cases of faltering growth for referral to specialist services. 

‘This should give all infants and children with faltering growth the best chance of reaching a healthy weight.’


Children’s growth is monitored using charts to compare them to healthy infants of the same age and gender.

They are then measured by curved lines on the charts are called centile lines. These show the average weight and height gain for babies of different ages.

Your baby’s weight and height may not follow a centile line exactly. Their measurements may go up or down by one centile line, but it’s less common for them to cross two centile lines. If this happens, talk to your health visitor, who can advise you.

It’s normal for your baby to be on different centiles for weight and length, but the two are usually fairly similar.

Source: NHS Choices

Other recommendations 

Parents should also avoid letting their children drink energy-dense drinks, such as milk, because they can diminish appetite.

The guidance states that the ‘simple interventions’ can increase nutritional intake and may be effective in improving weight gain.

NICE also said mealtimes should not be too brief, or too long and that sticking to three meals a day was important.

How many children are underweight? 

Government data collected last year from primary schools in England showed that one per cent of children starting school were underweight. 

The cause of faltering growth can be difficult to determine as there may be a range of contributing factors. 

However, deep-rooted problems with diet and feeding behaviour are most often the cause of malnutrition.

Leeds University researchers twelve years ago found that faltering growth can lead to a reduction of around three IQ points.