Percentiles Explained: Understanding Your Child’s Growth Charts


Summer has ended and school is upon us with its supply shopping, uniform buying, open houses, practices, and for many children, a check-up with their pediatrician. One of the most important components of a well-child visit is assessing a child’s growth–primarily by plotting his or her measurements on a standard growth chart. Although those curved lines and percentiles may seem daunting, growth charts are not difficult to understand.

What are growth charts?

Growth charts were created using decades of data collected about children’s growth. In children less than two years old, growth charts developed by the World Health Organization are used to plot length, weight, and head circumference. Children 2-20 years old use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) growth charts on which height, weight, and body mass index (BMI) are recorded. Boys and girls are plotted on different curves because their growth patterns are different. These charts serve as a reference for pediatricians–a tool that allows comparisons.

What do the percentiles mean?

Growth charts allow pediatricians to compare your child with other children of the same age and gender. The charts consist of smooth curved lines that represent different percentiles. The higher the percentile, the bigger the child is compared to other children. For example, if your five-year-old son’s weight is at the 25th percentile, then 25 percent of five-year-old boys weigh less than him and 75 percent weigh more.

Healthy children do not have an ideal or a goal percentile because growth is influenced by genetics, environment, nutrition, activity, and illness. It’s helpful to look at a child’s growth at one moment in time, but it is more valuable to observe his or her growth over time by comparing the measurements from today’s checkup with previous ones. Your pediatrician looks at the overall growth trend to ensure that your child is growing normally.

When should I be concerned?

Remember that growth charts must be interpreted in the context of a child’s overall wellbeing. However, certain growth patterns may prompt further investigation or intervention from your pediatrician:

  • A child’s growth that suddenly changes percentile curves. For example, a child who has consistently been on the 85th percentile curve for weight suddenly drops to the 25th percentile.
  • Children greater than the 95th percentile or less than the 5th. Family members’ growth helps determine if this is a problem.
  • Height and weight percentiles that are very different or changing at different rates. This may indicate a child is overweight or underweight.

Are all children represented by these growth charts?

Children provided with good nutrition, access to health care, and good social and general living conditions have similar growth patterns, regardless of race or ethnicity. There are specialized growth charts for premature infants and children with certain health conditions, such as Down syndrome and Turner syndrome. These charts have some limitations, but they are useful additions to the standard growth charts.

Growth is a reflection of a child’s overall health and nutrition. It’s one of the most important aspects of a well-child visit. Your pediatrician would love to show and discuss your child’s growth chart at his or her next check-up. You can also download these charts yourself or read more about growth charts on the CDC website. ■

Be the first to review this item!


Bookmark this

01 Aug 2017


By Dr. Michele Salassi

Recent Articles more articles

Real World and Online Predators: How to Keep Your Child Safe

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in 2018 alone, there were more than 1,600 attempted child abductions by strangers.

Allergic Asthma

in Pathways to Parenting

Runny nose and red eyes that come on every time the pollen blows are typical allergy symptoms many of us deal with this time of year. But when the lungs are involved, an allergic response can include asthma.

Perfect Match Kidney Transplant Makes Dream Come True

in Exceptional Lives

The summer before going to college, Ali Hooks began noticing something was wrong. After her move from Opelousas to Lubbock to attend Texas Tech, she sought medical help for the first time in her young, healthy life.

One Amazing Kid

in One Amazing Kid

Sophia Macias uses her golf talents to make a difference. The 7th grader at Episcopal School of Baton Rouge has created her own nonprofit, No Worries Just Birdies, to raise money for community needs and encourage other girls to get involved in golf.

Featured Listings more listings

Girl Scouts Louisiana East Summer Resident Camps

in Day Camps, Residential Camps

Are you looking for an amazing summer experience for your daughter? Girl Scout Resident Camp provides girls the perfect opportunity to try a variety of fun activities, as she discovers just how awesome it feels to be outdoors and active.

Newsletter