Newborn growth chart: what is it?

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Newborn growth charts monitor physical development in the first month of life, with gender-specific graphs indicating percentiles for weight, length, and head circumference. These graphs help doctors track growth rates and compare them to other babies of the same age, but percentile figures alone do not indicate health. It’s more important for a child to follow the same curve as they grow.

A newborn growth chart is a tool doctors use to monitor the physical development of newborns in the first month after birth. The graph typically takes the form of a gender-specific graph marked by curves that indicate a range of national or international percentiles for neonatal length, weight, and head circumference. Plotting a baby’s measurements on a newborn growth chart allows doctors to track that baby’s growth rate and determine how that rate compares to that of other babies of the same age. These graphs can be helpful in determining whether a child’s growth is progressing normally.

Usually, a newborn growth chart takes the form of a graph showing age on one axis and head circumference, weight, or length on the other axis. Instead of age, some versions may have weight on one axis and length on the other. Often, a single neonatal growth chart actually has two charts, one showing head circumference for age data and the other showing weight for length, weight for age, or length for age data. Because girls and boys generally develop at different rates, the graphs are gender-specific.

The graph of each neonatal growth chart is pre-marked with curved lines indicating national or international percentiles for head circumference, length and weight. In other words, it shows the normal range of measurements for newborns in that country or a number of similar countries, depending on the particular graph. By plotting a child’s measurements on a graph, a doctor can observe how the child’s physical development compares to that of other children. If the graph shows that the child’s weight falls on the 90th percentile curve of the weight-for-age graph, for example, that child weighs more than 90 percent of children of the same age.

It is vital to understand that, in isolation, these percentile figures do not always indicate whether a newborn is healthy or unhealthy. Factors such as heredity and nutrition can influence size, and a child whose length falls on the 10th percentile curve, for example, is not necessarily less healthy than a child who falls on the 80th percentile curve. It is more important for a child to continue following roughly the same curve as they grow. In other words, a head circumference that keeps falling on the 5th percentile curve every time it is measured may be perfectly normal. Head circumference that suddenly jumps from the 5th percentile to the 50th percentile, however, can signal a developmental disorder.

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