What to Expect with Kids and Growth

As I work with families (and research/write Fearless Feeding), I get a number of questions that center around the theme “Is this normal?” Periodically, I will write about these and share them here, for your benefit. Of course, if you have questions you want to ask directly, I’d be happy to include and answer them here—just email me.

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the distribution of body weight in children– where it goes and what’s normal –so I thought I’d do a brief overview of this.

A client of mine asked if her 9 year-old daughter’s belly was normal.

“She’s got a little extra around the middle and I’m a little concerned about it,” said Dad. “She’s active and seems to eat well—and thankfully she’s not worried about it, but I’m a little concerned.”

In girls, the body prepares for the important job of menstruation by laying down body fat in the area of the tummy. The average age of starting a period is 12.5 years, but this varies with ethnicity and weight status, and can be earlier or later. Once puberty starts (usually around age 10), height growth takes off and girls magically thin out over time. During this time, you will notice body weight redistribution and the addition of fat tissue–to the rear, hips, breasts, backs of arms, and thighs. This is the normal transformation of child into woman. If you notice extra weight gain overall, more than the normal “pouch” and “filling out” of puberty, it may be an indicator of overweight or obesity.

“My son seems to be the smallest in the class—all the girls are taller than he is! And he doesn’t seem to be getting muscular.”

In general, girls and boys grow at very different rates—girls outpace boys early on, then boys catch up and surpass girls during later adolescence. With this lag behind girls, puberty starts about 2 years later (around age 12) for boys.

Not only do boys get their turn— it lasts longer and often called the adolescent growth spurt. It’s true, boys spend more time growing, ending up taller and more muscular than girls. Once puberty hits, and testosterone levels rise, boy’s muscle growth occurs—visibly.

Bottom Line: Boys and girls grow and deposit muscle and fat tissue differently and their overall timing is different. Knowing about normal growth trends can help deter unnecessary corrections (like putting a little girl with a belly on a diet), get you started with additional help if needed (in case of excess weight), and most importantly, calm your fears.

Have you noticed any of these changes in your child’s shape or size?


  1. Helen says

    Jill – would you be willing to share your references with me? I’ve always wondered if this is really true or more anecdotal but haven’t found evidence either way. The growth charts tend to show steady change in both weight and height through that time period. Thanks!

    • Jill says

      Hi Helen, there are lots of references on onset of puberty in girls related to increases in body fat level, role of leptin, etc. Here is something I think you’ll find helpful: http://www.pediatricsdigest.mobi/content/121/Supplement_3/S208.full
      Unfortunately, I have not been able to pinpoint research specifically on locale of fat distribution–not sure it has been done. It’s only been recently that waist circumference measures have been used.
      You raise a good question–most of this is observational information passed on (i can testify to this weight distribution in my own girls pre-menarche)–stuff I learned in my training long ago.
      For some great (old) research on menarche/puberty, look up Rose Frisch–she has some hallmark stuff.

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