Do parents really need to know their child's growth chart?

'My kid is in the 99th percentile for height'

The Washington Post this week explored the pediatric growth chart—helpful for pediatricians in plotting the steady and proportional growth of a child, but often confusing and even competition-inducing for parents.

Growth charts became mainstream about thirty-five years ago, and pediatricians now use them for children under the age of 3 years old. The charts can help uncover deviations from steady growth that may indicate growth hormone deficiencies, metabolic disorders and cystic fibrosis; children's progress against the chart is often shared with parents in regular check-ups.

However, a 2009 study found that although 79% of parents said they understood growth charts, up to 77% incorrectly interpreted height/weight measurements in tandem on the charts, according to Pediatrics.

The charts can be "a terrific tool for health-care practitioners to track children's growth," Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph says, one of the authors of the 2009 study, "but the question is whether it should be used as an educational tool for parents, because it wasn't designed for that."

Meanwhile, growth charts can create an unnecessary sense of parental competition. "They drive people to compare their babies to others when, in fact, all babies grow and develop at different rates," said one parent interviewed by the Post.

Genetics, breastfeeding, and even adoption status can play into where a child falls on the chart, Pearl Ben-Joseph says. Moreover, the charts are just snapshots of children in the U.S. at that moment, but "many parents don't grasp the concept of percentiles, no matter how it is explained to them" (Cimmons, Washington Post, 6/11).

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