When addressing concerns over weight gain in breastfed babies, it’s so important to use growth charts that accurately depict the curve of growth for breastfed babies. This information was not available until recently, but since 2006 growth charts by the World Health Organization have made possible a more accurate assessment of growth in breastfed babies.
The WHO growth charts and standards are endorsed by the International Pediatric Association, the International Union of Nutrition Sciences (IUNS), and the United Nations Standing Committee on Nutrition (SCN).
Drawbacks to CDC Infant Growth Charts
Most U.S. health care providers currently use the CDC / Center for Health Statistics growth charts, based on a set of babies in the United States. However, at the time data for these charts were collected most children in the U.S. were not exclusively breastfed. According to the CDC:
The 2000 CDC Growth Chart reference population includes data for both formula-fed and breast-fed infants, proportional to the distribution of breast- and formula-fed infants in the population. During the past two decades, approximately one-half of all infants in the United States received some breast milk and approximately one-third were breast-fed for 3 months or more.
Note that the quote above indicates “some breast milk.” In fact, although breastfeeding has been increasing slowly since 1999, CDC national studies show that in the year 2003:
- Only 30% of babies in the U.S. were exclusively breastfed through three months.
- And only 10% of babies in the U.S. were exclusively breastfed through six months.
Currently the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the U.S. Surgeon General all recommend exclusive breastfeeding until six months of age. Thus at the time the CDC data was collected, 90% of mothers were not feeding their babies in the optimal manner currently recommended.
Clearly this shows a weakness in the CDC charts. They are being used to measure optimal growth, but they are not based on optimal feeding practices!
WHO Breastfeeding Baby Growth Charts
In recognition of problems associated with use of the CDC charts, the World Health Organization, in partnership with the United Nations University, undertook a project to create a set of Growth Standards that would reflect optimal growth, and the recommended practice of breastfeeding as best for infant health and development.
Click on the links to download or print the following WHO growth charts for breastfed infants:
- Weight-for-age Girls’ growth chart, birth to two years
- Length-for-age Girls’ growth chart, birth to two years
- Weight-for-length Girls’ growth chart, birth to two years
- Weight-for-age Boys’ growth chart, birth to two years
- Length-for-age Boys’ growth chart, birth to two years
- Weight-for-length Boys’ growth chart, birth to two years
Never delay treatment as a result of any information you find online or on this website, and consult your qualified health provider before making any decisions as to your child’s health. If you’re interested in speaking to your health provider about how the WHO standards might be more effective in assessing the health of breastfed babies, more information is available on their site.
You may find the WHO paper on how to interpret growth standards useful in that regard. It includes detailed information on how to use the WHO growth charts to identify underweight and overweight children, versus children within the boundaries of normal development.
In contrast with the CDC charts, the WHO charts are:
- Based upon breastfed children selected specifically for the study, “based on an optimal environment for proper growth: recommended infant and young child feeding practices, good healthcare, mothers who did not smoke, and other factors associated with good health outcomes.”
- Prescriptive rather than simply descriptive. The WHO growth standards are designed specifically as a tool for diagnosis and detection of growth-related conditions such as under-nutrition and overweight, and obsesity.
- Based on a large, diverse set of more than 8,000 children from around the world, including Brazil, Ghana, India, Norway, Oman, and the United States of America.
- Include weight-for-length charts for infants, not simply weight-for-age and length-for-age, including clinical information on judging the three charts in combination to diagnose potential problems.
According to the World Health Organization:
Since the late 1970s, the National Center for Health Statistics / WHO growth reference has been in use to chart children’s growth. This reference was based on data from a limited sample of children from the United States. It contains a number of technical and biological drawbacks that make it less adequate to monitor the rapid and changing rate of early childhood growth. It describes only how children grow in a particular region and time, but does not provide a sound basis for evaluation against international standards and norms.
The new standards are based on the breastfed child as the norm for growth and development. This brings coherence for the first time between the tools used to assess growth, and national and international infant feeding guidelines which recommend breastfeeding as the optimal source of nutrition during infancy.
Unlike growth charts currently used in the U.S., the WHO standards do not simply presume the health of the included populace, but instead take specific steps to design a protocol that is based on optimal health. In contrasting the two, the World Health Organization also mentions their potential use in combating the current health epidemic of obesity:
Arguably, the current obesity epidemic in many developed countries would have been detectable earlier if a prescriptive international standard had been available 20 years ago.
Differences in CDC vs. WHO Breastfeeding Charts
To illustrate the difference between the charts produced by the CDC and the WHO, the chart below shows both curves.
The above chart contrasts the median curve of the WHO growth standards with the 2000 growth charts produced by the United States CDC and the National Center for Health Statistics.
As doctors often use the direction of a child’s growth curve as an indicator of good health and nutrition, what’s important in the difference between the two charts is the arc of their growth curves. In contrast with the 2000 CDC charts, the WHO charts, based on babies breastfed according to health recommendations, show faster growth in the early months, followed by a slower growth rate beginning approximately the fourth month.
As a result of this differing curve, it’s possible that:
- Breastfed babies whose growth rate slows in the 4-10 month range, may be mistakenly identified as suffering a nutrition problem when using the CDC charts.
- Similarly, certain older babies and children who are predominantly artificially-fed could appear, when using the CDC charts, to be progressing optimally, when in fact they may be showing early signs of overweight.
The CDC and the National Center for Health Statistics is aware of these differences, and on their website state:
In general, exclusively breast-fed infants tend to gain weight more rapidly in the first 2 to 3 months. From 6 to 12 months breast-fed infants tend to weigh less than formula-fed infants.
As shown above, this difference can be as great as two pounds.
To address these issues, the WHO standards include not only growth charts but also guidelines for application of the standards, including innovative new growth indicators such as skinfold thicknessess, growth velocity standards and windows of achievement for six key motor development milestones.
Considering Your Baby’s Growth
If you breastfeed your baby, it’s good to know that infant growth charts are finally available that reflect the special patterns of breastfed versus formula-fed babies. Personally, I’ve had issues of weight gain crop up, and discovering the WHO children’s growth charts has been a great relief.
Disclaimer: The above content is for informational purposes only and is not intended to give medical advice. This content not intended as a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional advice or delay in seeking it because of content found on this site.