WHO Growth Charts for Children

Baby laying in pediatric weight scale

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Growth charts are one tool that pediatricians use to monitor a child's health and development. There are different charts for babies and older children, for boys and girls, as well as separate charts to track head circumference.

Sometimes also referred to as height or weight charts, pediatricians and other health professionals have used standardized growth charts to help parents keep track of their children's growth since 1977. There are different sets of growth charts that can be used, but the World Health Organization (WHO) growth charts are most commonly used for children under age 2.

Why Use Growth Charts?

Growth charts help a parent figure out whether a child's measurements are average, above average, or below average. Tracking height and weight in this way can help determine if a child is developmentally on target for their age and what changes might need to be made if not.

For example, by 2 weeks of age, most babies will have gained back any weight lost after birth. If a baby weighs less than they did at birth or has not reached their birth weight by their 2-week-old appointment, their pediatrician will likely evaluate their feeding habits and overall health.

This can help determine how to best get baby back on track to gain the weight they need in order to avoid complications from malnutrition. Evaluating a baby's growth at regular intervals can help prevent health problems from developing to a point where intervention may be unsuccessful at preventing complications.

CDC and WHO Growth Charts

Since 2000, physicians have used growth charts established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but in 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its own set of growth charts. Because significant differences exist between them, they're each used in different scenarios.

  • Growth reference

  • Better for kids 2 and up

  • Separate charts for boys and girls

  • Growth standard

  • Better for kids under 2

  • Separate charts for boys and girls

Growth Reference vs. Growth Standard

Unlike the CDC growth charts, which are a growth reference, the WHO charts are true growth standard.

The CDC growth charts include eight charts each for boys and girls, including charts that follow a child's height, weight, head circumference, and body mass index at various ages. One issue that some experts have had with the CDC growth charts is that they simply describe how children—most of whom were fed formula—grew at a particular time and place, instead of representing how children should grow.

The WHO growth charts describe the ideal growth of healthy children in optimal conditions, measuring children who were being breastfed in many different countries (Brazil, Ghana, India, Norway, Oman, United States). This gives a standard of growth that physicians can measure a child's growth against, while taking into account their feeding habits.

The WHO growth charts can be used for all children, no matter their ethnicity or socioeconomic class, or whether they are breastfed or formula fed.

Breastfed Babies vs. Formula-Fed Babies

The real problem with the CDC growth charts occurs when you try to observe the growth of an infant who is exclusively breastfed because the pattern of weight gain for a breastfed baby is different from an infant who is fed formula and the CDC growth chart does not account for this difference.

This pattern of weight gain for breastfeeding babies—faster weight gain than formula-fed babies in the first few months, but then slower weight gain for the rest of the first year—is easier to see on the WHO growth charts.

For example, think about a baby who is growing at the 25th percentile on the WHO growth charts. They would be about 12 pounds at three months of age, 14 1/2 pounds at six months, 16 1/4 pounds at nine months, and 18 pounds at the one-year mark.

In contrast, if those same weights were referenced on the CDC growth charts, they would have started at the 50th percentile at three months of age, moved down to the 25th percentile at six months, down again to the 10th percentile at nine months, and ended up just below the 10th percentile on their first birthday. 

If using the CDC growth chart, a health professional may have thought that something was wrong with the way that the baby was growing, even though it was likely a normal pattern for a breastfeeding baby. If your pediatrician thinks that your exclusively breastfed infant isn't gaining weight well enough, make sure that they are using the WHO growth charts to monitor your child's growth.

WHO Growth Charts for Girls

WHO growth charts are available from the World Health Organization and from the CDC:

WHO Growth Charts for Boys

Separate WHO growth charts for boys are also available:

A Word From Verywell

Keep in mind that there is a wide range of normal measurements for children and that patterns and trends over time are more important that the specific measurements themselves.

Your child's pediatrician will monitor their growth over the course of their scheduled appointments and discuss any concerns with you. If you have questions about your child's growth, don't be afraid to speak up and ask for clarifications and explanations when you need them.

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Growth Charts. Updated September 9, 2010.

  2. World Health Organization. WHO recommendations on newborn health: guidelines approved by the WHO Guidelines Review Committee. 2017.

  3. Kuczmarski RJ, Ogden CL, Grummer-strawn LM, et al. CDC growth charts: United States. Adv Data. 2000;(314):1-27.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. WHO Growth Charts. Updated September 9, 2010.

  5. A health professional's guide for using the new WHO growth chartsPaediatr Child Health. 2010;15(2):84–98. doi:10.1093/pch/15.2.84