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Significant neglect and/or attachment traumas can result in a condition in children known as “failure to thrive.”

What is failure to thrive?

Failure to thrive is a medical condition in which a small child, usually an infant, fails to gain the normal weight or grow as they should, becoming sickly in the absence of any known medical condition that would explain their predicament. The reason for this lack of growth is mysterious, but it’s commonly linked to neglect, especially emotional neglect.

What causes failure to thrive?

There are two basic conditions that can cause a failure to thrive:

  1. Severe psychological and emotional neglect (i.e., inadequate attachment);
  2. Attachment traumas that disrupt a child’s bond with their primary caregivers.

Many people don’t realize that there’s a powerful link between a child’s physical health and the amount of love and affection they receive. This was clearly demonstrated nearly a thousand years ago by one of the worst experiments ever devised, which inadvertently triggered this failure to thrive phenomenon. Friedrich the Second, who became the Holy Emperor of the Roman Empire in 1220 A.D, was trying to settle a debate over which language was the true language of God. To settle the issue, he decreed that dozens of newboms be placed in a special nursery. The infants’ physical needs would be well cared for, but the nurses were under strict orders not to talk to them or interact with them beyond providing for their basic needs. The idea was that ifyou removed the human influence, whichever language the babies started speaking when they began to talk would be “God’s language.”

The Emperor never received an answer to his question, because none of the babies survived long enough to speak anything. Despite having all of their physical needs met, without this love and meaningful interaction with caregivers, one by one the babies began to die. (Lewis, Amini & Lannon, 2000)

Other natural experiments have turned up similarly dreadful results. In the early 1900s in New York, more than 50% of the infants taken to baby drops at Catholic nurseries died before their first birthday due to a lack of affectionate contact with nurturing caregivers. (Bernstein, 2001, p. 256) Similar outcomes were observed in Romanian orphanages, where children were abandoned for up to 20 hours a day. (Chugani et al., 2001) One study in the 1940s found more than a third of children raised in institutions lacking in personalized cdic died by the age of two, an extremely high mortality rate.

Even infants and toddlers in modern foster care systems operated in industrialized countries have higher mortality rates. It isn’t as high as 40% or 50%, but there can still be around a 1% or so increase in mortality rates. This doesn’t sound all that impressive, but it can mean that instead of 0.2% of infants dying before their fifth birthday, you have 1.2% dying. These deaths are unexplained or attributed to other medical causes, but there’s a consistent link between emotional neglect and/or attachment traumas and increased mortality.

This syndrome is even seen in animals. It’s often hard to keep orphaned baby animals alive even if they are otherwise physically healthy and well cared for, simply because the separation from their parents is too traumatic to overcome. Something inside signals them to “give up” on a biological level.

The physiological mechanisms of this aren’t well understood, though we do have some hints. Infants diagnosed with “failure to thrive” are often found to have reduced levels of growth hormones. (Stanhope, Wilks & Hamill, 1994) It’s also well known that stress is toxic for the body, weakening one’s immune system while disrupting normal healthy functioning, and emotional neglect and attachment traumas are the most severe type of stress a child can experience. Still, there seems to be something else on a psychological level that disrupts the will to live, causing the body to follow suit.

The good news is that this condition can be reversed, and children restored to normal health with the proper type of nurturing care. (Albanese et al., 1994) One 3-year-old was diagnosed with failure to thrive and given an intervention that increased the amount of touch and affection she received. She then gained ten pounds in a single month, growing from 26 to 36 pounds—a 35% increase, even though her calories remained the same. So the same nutrition that wasn’t sufficient to maintain a healthy weight before was enough to get her growing once her needs for nurturing were being met. (Perry & Szalavitz, 2017, pp. 104-105)

  • References:
    Perry, B., Szalavitz, M. (2017) The Boy Who Was RaisedAs A Dog. New York: Basic Books
  • Chugani, H. et al. (2002) ”Local brain functional activity following early deprivation: A study of post-institutionalized Romanian orphans,” Neuro Image, 14:1290-1301
  • Iwaniec, D. (2004) Children Who Fail To Thrive: A Practical Guide. Chichester, UK: Wiley
  • Stanhope, R., Wilks, Z., Hamill, G. (1994) “Failure to grow: Lack of food or lack of love?” Professional Care of the Mother & Child, Nov./Dec/., 4(8): 234-37
  • Albanese, A. et al. (1994) “Reversibility of physiological growth hormone secretion in children with psychosocial dwarfism.” Clinical Endocrinology, 40(5): 687-692, May
  • Bernstein, N. (2001) The Lost Children of Wilder. New York: Pantheon Books
    Lewis, T., Anini, F., Lannon, R. (2000) General Theory of Love. New York: Random House

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