Catch-up Growth in Premature Babies

Newborn baby sleeping in incubator
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Catch-up growth, also called compensatory growth or compensatory gain, is rapid growth in infants or young children who were born prematurely, small for their gestational age, or who had a health problem severe enough to prevent normal growth for a period of time. Catch-up growth usually starts between the ages of 1 and 2 and goes up to 3 years of age. If you have witnessed your child go through an unusual growth spurt, it may be catch-up growth.


According to the Journal of Pediatrics, roughly 85% of babies born small compared to their gestational age show signs of catch-up growth in childhood. Rapid growth is usually marked by an abnormal height increase, but can also include body weight, body composition, head circumference, or body segments such as sitting height or leg length.

In preemies, an increase in adiposity, or fat composition, has been observed, rather than increases in height. This accelerated growth can occur in a short period of time surprising parents. Catch-up growth has both positive and negative consequences.

The Upside 

Infants who do not show catch-up growth tend to be shorter adults and may have more cognitive problems than other children. Eliminating growth deficit is desirable for having a baby born prematurely to reach normal numbers on growth charts.

The Downside 

However, infants who do show catch-up growth have higher risks of childhood obesity and adult health problems related to obesity and other metabolic disorders (such as type II diabetes) due to impaired glucose tolerance. Children born prematurely who have an extreme growth spurt may also be at an increased risk for heart disease.

Striking a Balance

Because there are risks and rewards to catch-up growth in preemies, think about striking a balance. While catch-up growth happens naturally in some babies born prematurely, others may not. Do what's best for your child. Don't look to overfeed or overexert your child to promote catch-up growth as these strategies may actually hinder your child's development and overall health.

As long as your child is taken care of, their size and weight should not matter. But if it does to you, know that over time the issue can take care of itself.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Lindström L, Ahlsson F, Lundgren M, Bergman E, Lampa E, Wikström AK. Growth patterns during early childhood in children born small for gestational age and moderate pretermSci Rep. 2019;9(1):11578. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-48055-x

  3. Jain V, Singhal A. Catch up growth in low birth weight infants: striking a healthy balance. Rev Endocr Metab Disord. 2012;13(2):141-7. doi:10.1007/s11154-012-9216-6

By Cheryl Bird, RN, BSN
Cheryl Bird, RN, BSN, is a registered nurse in a tertiary level neonatal intensive care unit at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg, Virginia.