While being overweight or obese may top the list of child health problems, being at a less than optimal weight is a problem I encounter more often with special needs children.

When children don’t eat or absorb enough food, their growth slows down.

Sometimes it happens so gradually parents might not even realize it. 

Not getting the proper amount of nutrition and not growing appropriately can impair your child’s cognition, focus, sleep and behavior. 

If you have noticed your child’s weight-for-age or height-for-age has been dropping throughout their life, they are either extremely physically active, not eating enough calories, not absorbing their diet correctly or all of the above! 
 

Fixing this issue will make your child not only feel better but be able to function better. 

First, make sure your child eats enough every day. 

Many children with sensory issues or autism do not eat enough because they are often times picky eaters with objections to certain food textures and/or are unable to eat in certain settings. 

Some special needs kids will eat plenty of processed junk foods but poor amounts of protein, fruits and vegetables. 

Some will eat these foods but not be able to absorb them properly. 
 

Either way, your child needs to get the right amount of food daily to function at their best. 

Here are a few tips to see if your child is getting the right amount of food daily: children need about 1000 calories per day plus 100 calories for every year of age. For example: a two year old needs roughly 1200 calories every day and a seven year old needs about 1700 calories every day. 

This estimate only holds true if the child is growing as expected. 

If the child is showing regression in their weight or height, then a lot of extra calories are needed to catch up. 

This number can range from 200-500 extra calories per day. 
 

Children who do not eat enough calories tend to be irritable, have anxiety, cry easily, and have difficulty focusing, show oppositional behavior and/or insomnia. 

Nonverbal children may wake at night and cry or sneak food. 

Some children with autism do not sense their hunger cues accurately so you may need to make sure they are eating enough even if they are telling you they are not hungry. 

Children with growth regression need a lot of extra calories to “catch-up”. 

If your child has a body mass index (BM) that is near or below 13 or 14 or unexplained drops in either weight or height they will need to try to catch-up. 
 

If your child is too thin for their height but their height is normal for their age, give them more calories from healthy carbohydrates and fats/oils. 

If their height and weight are both lower than expected, your child may need more protein, carbohydrates and fat. 

Children who weight more than 40 pounds need a minimum of 25-30 grams of high-quality protein daily, or about a gram of protein for every two pounds of body weight, whichever is greater. 

More is not always better when it comes to protein, so keep it within the recommendation. 

If you are not sure if your special needs child needs to eat more food, try keeping a food diary for a week or so and keep track of everything they eat. 
 

If they are coming up short, then you may be surprised in how their functionality/behavior can improve simply may making sure they are eating enough.

 

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