Hesperian Health Guides

Children Who Stay Short (Dwarfism)

Parents often worry when a child does not grow as quickly as other children. Shortness has many causes. Here we discuss only a few.

  • Normal slow growth. Some children normally grow more slowly and mature sexually later than others. If the child is normal and healthy in other ways, do not worry. He will probably grow quickly when he begins to grow up sexually, even if this happens as late as 15, 16, or 17 years old.
  • Normal short size. When one or both parents are shorter than average, they may have children who are also short. Shortness ‘runs in the family’ and this is normal. Make sure the child is healthy and eats well.
  • Poor nutrition. Some children do not grow normally because they do not get enough to eat, or do not eat the food their bodies need. They may seem normal except that they are thin, small, have big bellies, and get sick often. Or they may lack energy, seem very unhappy, or develop swollen feet, hands, and faces. These children need more and better food. They may also need more stimulation, play, love, and attention in order to grow and develop more quickly (see Chapter 35).
  • Long-term illness or medication. Severe long illness often slows a child’s growth. Also, certain medicines such as cortisone or steroids for arthritis, if given for a long time, can slow growth and weaken bones.
  • Dwarfism. Some children are born with a condition in which the body does not grow normally. There are many different patterns and causes. In 1 of 5 children it is inherited, and certain relatives will also be very short.
normal child limbs short for trunk trunk short for limbs normal proportions, very small size
DVC Ch13 Page 126-2.png
DVC Ch13 Page 126-3.png
DVC Ch13 Page 126-4.png

In the most common type of dwarfism, the arms and legs are short for the body. The head is big, the forehead bulges, and the bridge of the nose is flat. The child often has a swayback, pot belly, and bowlegs. Hip problems, club feet, or eye problems and hearing loss may occur.


There is no medical treatment for most children who are short, including those with dwarfism. In many countries, doctors prescribe ‘growth’ hormones to short children to make them grow faster. These may cause some growth at first, but they soon make the bones mature and stop growing, so that the child stays smaller than he would have without treatment. Do not give hormones to speed growth.

Children who are very short for their age sometimes are made fun of by other children, or get treated as though they are younger than they really are. Life can be difficult for them and they may feel unhappy or unsure of themselves. It is important that everyone treat them just like other children their age. CHILD-to-child activities can help other children become more understanding (see Chapter 47).

This page was updated:21 Nov 2019