What Adult Problems Can Start with Fetal Undernutrition?

Patient Presentation
After watching a movie set during World War II, a pediatrician’s teenage son said, “That movie wasn’t very realistic. They didn’t have the right arms for a lot of the troops. Plus somebody forgot when they filmed it that the Battle of the Bulge occurred in the winter. There was no snow on the ground in the movie. Plus, if you look, all the people, including the civilians, look pretty healthy. Their faces are fat and they all have shoes and decent looking clothes. The people should be looking sicker at the end of the war.” “I noticed the people too. They all looked pretty well fed and clothed as you said. In 1944-45 there was a total famine Netherlands, and I bet in Belgium too so people wouldn’t be looking that good,” she remarked. During the ensuing conversation, the teen noted that war and famine continue today. The pediatrician said, “Yes and the health problems because of poor nutrition and other problems continue even after the children grow up.” “Like what kinds of problems?” he asked. “I know that there is an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. There’s probably more but I haven’t read about it in quite a while,” she said. “Do people know what makes the problems even when people are old?” he asked. “Probably, but again I haven’t read about this in a long time. Maybe I’ll see if I can find you an answer,” she replied.

Developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD) is a scientific hypothesis that proposes that fetal nutrition has permanent effects on growth, metabolism, and structure. These changes, or biological programming, are felt to occur at critical periods in fetal development “…when developmental changes in the organism towards increasing complexity, greater plasticity, and more efficient functioning occurs rapidly and may be most easily modified either in favorable or unfavorable directions.” Fetal undernutrition has been studied more than overnutrition, and various nutritional components (protein, micronutrients) have been studied but to a lesser degree. Exposure to fetal undernutrition during these critical periods may create a “thrifty phenotype” where adaptions to the fetal nutrient-limited environment allows the fetus to survive, but induces permanent changes that later on are unhealthy. Epidemiological studies linking birthweight to adult chronic diseases have shown a variety of outcomes (see Learning Point below). Many times the relationship shows a “U” shaped pattern of extremes of birth weight (lowest and highest) having the greatest risks of adult chronic diseases.

Although not entirely elucidated, it is felt that fetal programming through epigenetics is at least part of the mechanism. “Epigenetics encompasses change to marks on the genome that are copied from one cell generation to the next, which may alter gene expression, but which do not involved changes in the primary DNA sequence.”

  • DNA methylation is one of the most epigenetic mechanisms studied. One of the most common examples is after translation, a cytosine residue sitting next to a guanine residue is methylated to form a cytosine-phosphate-guanine dinucleotide (CpG).
    These CpGs are important gene regulators. For example, folic acid carries a methyl group and is being studied for possible DNA methylation.

  • Histones are proteins which package and order the chromatin. They can be chemically modified in many different ways including methylation, acetylation, phosphorylation, etc. Acetylation is one of the most studied mechanisms.
    Butyrate (from dietary fiber), diallyl disulfide (from garlic) or retinoic acid (from spinach, carrots, eggs) can control gene expression through histones.

  • microRNAs are small RNA molecules encoded in the genome that control gene expression. They appear to be able to directly affect gene expression but also through other mechanisms such as DNA methylation or histone modifications.
    Retinoic acids, curcumin (from tumeric) and genistein (from soy) are different nutritional factors that can control gene expression through microRNAs.

Epigenetics affect can the total number of cells produced and tissue remodeling. For example, in pregnant animals who experience protein deprivation, the total number of nephrons are permanently decreased and the offspring later has an increased risk of hypertension. There is also evidence of fetal tissue remodeling in response to fetal undernutrition particularly in the pancreas, liver and hypothalamus. Even umbilical cord tissue has been related to later outcomes such as childhood adiposity. Areas that seem to be prioritized for adequate fetal nutrition are the brain, heart and adrenal gland at the expense of other organs such as the liver, kidney, pancreas, lung and skeletal muscle. It is theorized that the functions of these latter organs are ones that the pregnant mother performs for the fetus, therefore they are more affected.

Epigenetic patterns are inherited and it is felt that this is at least one reason for transmission of some of the risk factors to subsequent generations (ie the child or grandchild of the fetus).

While epigenetics are felt to place the fetus at risk, environmental factors potentially can add to it or help to mitigate it. The social theories are framed around the idea that multiple environmental stressors (often chronic such as chronic poverty) accumulate during the person’s lifetime and increase disease vulnerability. This duality may be part of the reason for racial and socioeconomic differences in health and disease outcomes. For example, low birth weight is lowest in teen US African American women, but low birth weight increases with advancing maternal age. This is possibly because the older mother has been exposed to more lifetime stressors. On the positive side, there is also data which supports other “critical” times when the offspring may experience environments which help to mitigate these developmental effects. For example, at risk children who experience early positive social experiences have shown some mitigating effects to abnormal stress responses.

Learning Point
Fetal undernutrition has been associated adult problems and diseases such as:

  • Poorer “human capital”
    • Shorter stature
    • Increased obesity/lower lean body mass – small infants become big children/adults
    • Lower cognition
    • Lower academic achievement, work capacity, income
    • Increased stress responses
    • Decreased immune function
  • Increased disease risk
    • Coronary artery disease and mortality
    • Hypertension
    • Diabetes or insulin resistance or glucose intolerance
    • Chronic kidney disease – decreased glomerular filtration
    • Chronic lung disease – decreased lung function
  • Fetal overnutrition
    • Fetal macrosomia
    • Metabolic disease

Questions for Further Discussion
1. What are problems associated with acute malnutrition?
2. How common is food insecurity in your area?
3. What resources are available to provide appropriate nutrition to reproductive age women, children and teens in your area?

Related Cases

To Learn More
To view pediatric review articles on this topic from the past year check PubMed.

Evidence-based medicine information on this topic can be found at SearchingPediatrics.com, the National Guideline Clearinghouse and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

Information prescriptions for patients can be found at MedlinePlus for this topic: Fetal Health and Development

To view current news articles on this topic check Google News.

To view images related to this topic check Google Images.

To view videos related to this topic check YouTube Videos.

Barker DJ, Osmond C, Kajantie E, Eriksson JG.
Growth and chronic disease: findings in the Helsinki Birth Cohort.
Ann Hum Biol. 2009 Sep-Oct;36(5):445-58.

Canani RB, Costanzo MD, Leone L, et al.
Epigenetic mechanisms elicited by nutrition in early life.
Nutr Res Rev. 2011 Dec;24(2):198-205.

Fall CH. Fetal malnutrition and long-term outcomes.
Nestle Nutr Inst Workshop Ser. 2013;74:11-25.

Rubin LP. Maternal and pediatric health and disease: integrating biopsychosocial models and epigenetics.
Pediatr Res. 2016 Jan;79(1-2):127-35.

Reichetzeder C, Dwi Putra SE, Li J, Hocher B. Developmental Origins of Disease – Crisis Precipitates Change. Cell Physiol Biochem. 2016;39(3):919-38.

Donna M. D’Alessandro, MD
Professor of Pediatrics, University of Iowa Children’s Hospital

How Much Peanut Butter Should He Take?

Patient Presentation
A 6-month-old male came to clinic for his well child examination. He had a history of mild eczema that was treated with emollients and occasionally 1% hydrocortisone cream. Through the national press, his mother had seen that the guidelines for introducing peanut foods had recently changed and she asked about if she should start peanuts in his diet and if so, how she should do it. The pediatrician reviewed his dietary history, which showed him to be tolerating thinned cereals and pureed fruits along with breastfeeding without difficulty. “I always breastfeed him first and then try the cereals or fruits later on, but he seems to really enjoy them and he’s never had a problem with anything he’s eaten,” his mother noted. The family history was positive for eczema in his 3-year old brother who did not have any food allergies and his father who had “dry skin.” “I’ve always stayed away from peanuts because I didn’t want his brother to choke on them,” his mother offered.

The pertinent physical exam showed a healthy male who was growing at the 10-25% with normal vital signs. His skin examination showed reddened areas in the flexural surfaces of his elbows and knees and some mild general xerosis. The diagnosis of a healthy male with mild atopic dermatitis was made. The pediatrician told the mother that the guidelines had recently changed and she could try adding some peanut to his diet. “I’ll give you a handout about how to mix it and give the peanut. It should be done over 3 or more feedings in a week,” the pediatrician noted.

Peanut allergy is an increasing problem with ~2% prevalence in the United States. It is also the leading cause of food-related death. The LEAP trial (Learning Early about Peanut Allergy trial) was a randomized trial of early introduction of peanut foods to try to prevent peanut allergy. It found a significant decrease in peanut allergy at 60 months of age with early introduction of peanut foods to infants. This finding occurred in participants with baseline negative skin testing (13.7% in peanut avoidance group versus 1.9% in peanut consumption group) or those with measureable peanut skin testing at study entry (35.3% in peanut avoidance group versus 10.6% in peanut consumption group).

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease along with other organizations recommend early introduction of peanut foods to infants who are at increased risk for becoming peanut allergic.
They recommend for infants with:

  • Severe eczema, egg allergy or both
    • Strongly consider evaluation by peanut serum IgE level and/or skin prick test, and if necessary, by oral food challenge. Based on the results introduce peanut containing foods at 4-6 months.
    • If the 4-6 month time period is missed for introduction, the infant may still benefit by early peanut food introduction.
    • Additional serum IgE levels for other potential food allergies are not recommended.
  • Mild to moderate eczema
    • Introduce peanut containing foods around 6 months of age
  • No eczema or any food allergy
    • Introduce peanut containing foods when age appropriate and consistent with family preferences and cultural practices

Children who are identified as peanut allergic should strictly avoid peanut foods.
In the situation where family members are peanut allergic, health care providers and families should discuss the risks and benefits of early introduction of peanut food to infants versus the potential risks of further sensitization or accidental peanut exposure to the family member.

Learning Point
Breastfeeding or formula feeding should be continued as appropriate for the age of the infant or child.
Peanut foods should not be the first solid food the infant eats. Other solid foods should be introduced first to make sure the child is developmentally ready to appropriately ingest solid foods and to make sure that non-specific signs and symptoms if they occur, are not confused with IgE mediated food allergy.
Chunky peanut butter should never be used because of choking risks.

Peanut dosing

  • The recommended amount of peanut is ~6-7 grams of peanut protein per week, given over 3 or more feedings.
  • 2 grams of peanut protein is equivalent to
    • 2 teaspoons (10 ml) of smooth peanut butter (= 9-10 g)
    • ~10 whole peanuts that will be ground to a fine powder/paste (8 grams of peanuts or ~ 2.5 teaspoons of ground peanuts)
    • 2 teaspoons of peanut flour or peanut butter flour (these are distinct products but can be used interchangeably for feeding infants)
    • 21 sticks of Bamba (a peanut puff product made in Israel – other similar products that contain the same amount of peanut protein can also be substituted)
  • Recipes
    • Thinned smooth peanut butter
      • Mix 2 level teaspoons of smooth peanut butter (Never use chunky peanut butter) with 2-3 teaspoons of hot water
      • Mix until dissolved, thin, and well-blended
      • Make a mixture of comfortable consistency for the infant by adding more water if needed or adding previously tolerated infant cereal to thicken
      • Let cool before serving to the infant
    • Smooth peanut butter puree (Never use chunky peanut butter)
      • Measure 2 level teaspoons of smooth peanut butter
      • Add 2-3 tablespoons (60-90 ml) to previously tolerated pureed fruit or vegetable and mix well
      • Make a mixture of comfortable consistency for the infant by adding more or less puree
      • Serve to the infant
    • Peanut flour or peanut butter powder
      • Measure 2 level teaspoons of peanut flour or peanut butter powder
      • Add ~2 tablespoons (60 ml) to previously tolerated pureed fruit or vegetable and mix well
      • Make a mixture of comfortable consistency for the infant by adding more or less puree
      • Serve to the infant
    • Bamba (or other similar products that contain the same amount of peanut protein can also be substituted)
      • For infants < 7 months of age or older children who cannot manage dissolvable textures
        • 21 pieces are mixed with 4-6 teaspoons of water
        • Wait until the pieces are softened
        • Serve to child making sure to monitor the child for possible choking
      • For infants > 7 months of age or older children who can manage dissolvable textures
        • 21 pieces can be served “as is” to the infant

First feeding instructions

  • The infant should be healthy and well so if there is a reaction it is not confused with an illness; do not feed the infant if they have a cold, vomiting, diarrhea etc.
  • The first feeding should be at home, not a restaurant or child care
  • At least 1 adult should be able to watch the infant for a minimum of 2 hours without other distractions or responsibilities to monitor for possible allergic symptoms
  • A full feeding (see recipes above) should be prepared.
  • Give a small amount of the peanut food on the tip of a spoon for the infant to “taste” the peanut food
  • Wait 10 minutes
  • If no allergic reaction, then give the rest of the peanut food at the infants usual feeding speed
  • Monitor the child for at least 2 hours after feeding the peanut food for possible allergic reaction symptoms

    Possible allergic reaction symptoms include:

    • Mild symptoms
      • New rash, or
      • Few hives (welts) around mouth or face
    • More severe symptoms which can include 1 or more these
      • Lip swelling
      • Face or tongue swelling
      • Choking
      • Problems swallowing
      • Vomiting
      • Hives over the body
      • Any problem breathing
      • Wheezing
      • Coughing
      • Sudden change in skin color such as being blue or pale
      • Sudden tiredness, lethargy or seeming limp

If the parent has ANY CONCERNS about their child’s reaction to eating peanut, they should seek medical attention/call 911

Questions for Further Discussion
1. What are indications for allergy testing? To learn more click here
2. What are the most common food allergies?

Related Cases

To Learn More
To view pediatric review articles on this topic from the past year check PubMed.

Evidence-based medicine information on this topic can be found at SearchingPediatrics.com, the National Guideline Clearinghouse and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

Information prescriptions for patients can be found at MedlinePlus for this topic: Food Allergy

To view current news articles on this topic check Google News.

To view images related to this topic check Google Images.

To view videos related to this topic check YouTube Videos.

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Newly issued Clinical Guidelines from the NIAID Recommend Early Peanut Introduction, Not Avoidance.
Available from the Internet at https://www.aaaai.org/about-aaaai/newsroom/news-releases/early-peanut-introduction (rev. 1/5/17, cited m3/13/17).

Togias A, Cooper SF, Acebal ML, et. al. Addendum guidelines for the prevention of peanut allergy in the United States: Report of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases-sponsored expert panel.
J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2017 Jan;139(1):29-44.

Donna M. D’Alessandro, MD
Professor of Pediatrics, University of Iowa Children’s Hospital

What Causes Anemia?

Patient Presentation
An 8-year-old female with an underlying genetic syndrome presented with some fatigue, cough and fever for 3 days. The patient had no bruising or bleeding symptoms. The past medical history showed her to eat a variety of pureed feeds and receive overnight continuous feeds through a gastrostomy tube. The liquid nutritional supplement did have iron in it. The family history was negative for any hematological problems including anemia. The review of systems was negative.

The pertinent physical exam showed a non-verbal female who looked mildly ill with a temperature of 38.0°C, heart rate of 96 beats/minute and respiratory rate of 24.
She was in her wheelchair. HEENT showed pale, non-icteric conjunctiva, mild rhinorrhea, with normal pharynx and ears. She did not have increased work of breathing and she had transmitted upper airway noises. Her abdomen was soft, non-tender without adenopathy and her G-tube area had normal skin. Rectal examination was negative for occult blood. She had no skin lesions. The laboratory evaluation included a complete blood count which showed a hemoglobin of 7.8 g/dL, MCV of 71 fl, and with normal platelets, white blood cells and cell subtypes. The peripheral smear showed small pale cells without abnormal shape. The reticulocyte count was low. Iron studies completed later were consistent with iron deficiency anemia. Lead and thyroid testing were negative.

The work-up included a chest radiograph that was negative. An ultrasound examination of her abdomen to evaluate for occult masses or other pathology was also negative. A review of her medications did not show any that caused bone marrow suppression or hemolysis.

The diagnosis of iron deficiency anemia and an upper respiratory tract infection were made. It was unclear why she had the iron deficiency anemia because it appeared that she should have had adequate nutrition from her oral and gastrostomy feedings. Iron supplementation was begun and a dietician reviewed her diet but did not recommend any additional changes. The patient’s clinical course over the next month showed that her upper respiratory tract infection had improved, but she was somewhat less energetic than she usually was. Her repeat laboratory testing showed a hemoglobin of 9.6 g/dL and a reticulocyte count of 18%. Her other hematologic indices also improved. She continued to have no obvious bleeding symptoms. At that time the physician elected to continue to monitor her and felt that her anemia and fatigue were still most likely due to nutritional deficiency and would monitor her closely.

One of the most common problems in pediatrics is anemia. It is defined as “a lower than normal value for the related measurements of hemoglobin, hematocrit, and number of red blood cells”, usually 2 standard deviations below the normal for age. Normal hematological values change with age. For a discussion of which values are used click here.

The most common type of anemia in childhood is iron deficiency which is commonly caused by inadequate stores (e.g. premature infant), inadequate intake (e.g. poor nutrition) or blood loss (e.g. menses). Anemia screening is recommended at age 9-12 months, and for adolescent males and females during routine health examinations. As iron deficiency is the most common cause, often a trial of therapeutic iron (2-6 mg/kg/day of elemental iron) is started and then a complete blood count is rechecked ~ 1 month later. If iron deficiency is the cause then there should be an increase in the hemoglobin and hematocrit. If not, other causes must be sought. For a discussion of why anemias may not correct click here.

History is very important to help direct the evaluation and workup. A detailed dietary history including pica or lead ingestion can give clues to a possible dietary reason for the anemia, especially iron deficiency anemia. Blood loss history including trauma, bleeding or potential occult loss from the genitourinary tract are also very helpful. Bone marrow production problems (e.g. malignancy, infectious diseases) or hemolysis risks (e.g. sickle cell anemia) also must be looked for. Some causes have multiple etiologies such as a decreased red blood cell half life coupled with increased risk for hemolysis (e.g. sickle cell anemia).

Signs and symptoms of anemia include:

  • No symptoms
  • Developmental delay
  • Irritability
  • Heart failure
  • Lethargy and fatigue
  • Organomegaly – spleen, liver, lymph nodes
  • Pallor
  • Poor oral intake
  • Tachycardia
  • Signs of hemolysis – jaundice, paleness, dark urine
  • Stool color changes, blood in stool or urine
  • Weight loss

Review of the medical records for family history of anemia or hematopoietic diseases is very important along with reviewing any previous laboratory testing including neonatal screening. Sometimes much of the needed evaluation has already been previously completed for other reasons such as neonatal screening.

It is also important to evaluate all components of the complete blood count to look for other abnormalities such as platelet or white blood cell count problems. Other related cases can be found here: Lymphocytosis, Eosinophilia, Thrombocytosis, and Thrombocytopenia.

Learning Point
The differential diagnosis of anemia includes:

  • Nutritional
    • Iron deficiency
      • Poor nutrition – inadequate iron intake, abnormal eating patterns
      • Other nutrient deficiencies – folate, B12, riboflavin, Vitamin C, copper
      • Excessive milk intake
    • Lead toxicity
    • Malabsorption
    • Prematurity because of inadequate stores
  • Anemia of chronic disease
    • Autoimmune diseases
    • Liver disease
    • Hypothyroidism
  • Hematological
    • Hematopoietic problem
      • Congenital aplastic anemia
      • Fanconi
      • Blackfan-Diamond
      • Schwachman
      • Malignancy
      • Transient erythroblastopenia of childhood
      • Medication or toxin exposure – anticonvulsants, Zidovudine
      • Storage diseases – lipids, Langerhans cell histocystosis
    • Hemolysis
      • Congenital hemolytic anemia
        • Membrane defects
          • Elliptocytosis
          • Hereditary spherocytosis
        • Enzyme defects
          • G-6-PD deficiency
          • Pyruvate kinase deficiency
        • Hemoglobin problems
          • Sickle cell disease
          • Hemoglobin S or C or other hemoglobinopathies
          • Sideroblastic anemia
          • Thalassemia
        • Immune hemolytic anemia – Rh or ABO incompatibility, cold agglutinin, warm agglutinin
        • Microangiopathic hemolytic anemia – hemolytic uremia syndrome, Kasabach-Merritt syndrome
        • Hypersplenism
        • Liver disease
        • Renal disease
        • Telangectasia
        • Wilson disease
        • Mechanical – artificial heart valve
        • Medication or toxin exposure – anticonvulsants, Zidovudine, aluminum, lead
      • Infectious disease
        • Congenital infection
        • Bacteremia/Septicemia/Disseminated intravascular coagulation
        • Malaria
        • Viral
          • Common viral infections
          • Congenital infections
          • Hepatitis
    • Blood loss
      • Epistaxis
      • Cephalohematoma
      • Gastrointestinal – inflammatory bowel disease, polyps, varices, Meckel’s diverticulum
      • Menses
      • Trauma
        • Other bleeding problems such as hemophilia or platelet disorders
        • Twin-twin transfusion
        • Placental/umbilical bleeding
        • Pulmonary hemosiderosis
        • Hemorrhagic disease of the newborn
        • Urinary – paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria
    • Other
      • Dilutional
      • Excessive phlebotomy
      • Munchausen syndrome or Munchausen by proxy

Questions for Further Discussion
1. On a peripheral blood smear, what types of findings are helpful in determining an anemia’s cause?
2. Anemia is often classified by red blood cell size. What are some of the common causes of microcytic, normocytic or macrocytic anemias?
3. What are indications for a bone marrow evaluation in a child with anemia?

Related Cases

To Learn More
To view pediatric review articles on this topic from the past year check PubMed.

Evidence-based medicine information on this topic can be found at SearchingPediatrics.com, the National Guideline Clearinghouse and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

Information prescriptions for patients can be found at MedlinePlus for this topic: Anemia

To view current news articles on this topic check Google News.

To view images related to this topic check Google Images.

To view videos related to this topic check YouTube Videos.

Sheldon SH, Levy HB. Pediatric Differential Diagnosis. Second Edition. Raven Press: New York. 1985:12-15.

Cohen PS. Anemia, in Pediatrics A Primary Care Approach, Berkowitz CD ed. W.B. Saunders Co. Philadelphia PA. 1996;230-34.

Engorn B, Flerlage J. The Harriet Lane Handbook. 20th Edit. Elsevier Saunders. 2015: 308.

Sandoval C. Approach to the Child with Anemia. UpToDate. (online resource) (rev. 6/4/2015, cited 2/25/17).

Donna M. D’Alessandro, MD
Professor of Pediatrics, University of Iowa Children’s Hospital

What Causes School Absenteeism?

Patient Presentation
A 14-year-old male came to clinic because he was worried about school. He had been in a car accident and had been out of school for a few weeks. He described initially going back to school and found it very physically tiring and he was behind in his classes. “It’s just really hard for me to get around the school and then I don’t know what is going on in my classes. I like seeing people but it’s really hard,” he stated. He went on, “It’s just easier for me to stay home and try to catch up, but I’m falling farther and farther behind. I’m not really sure what to do.” He and his parents describe how he tried to return to school for half-days, but this was too tiring for him. “It’s just easier for us to have him at home, so we don’t have to leave work to pick him up early,” his mother said. “I missed a lot of work because of the accident,” she confided. “We’ve tried to help him with his homework but he is behind his friends,” they stated. “The school had offered some tutoring but he’d have to be at school to do that,” his father went on. “I really don’t want to be in a class where everyone is so much farther ahead than me,” the teenager stated. He says he was sleeping better recently than he had after the accident, denied flashbacks or anxiety about the accident, or worries about his family.

The past medical history revealed that he had always been a little more anxious. “He’s the worrier in the family. He’s always been more worried about how he’ll do in the baseball game or on the test, but when it comes time to do those things he’s just fine,” they noted. The pertinent physical exam showed a well-appearing male. His vital signs were normal. He still had a cast on his left leg. Healing scars on his face and arms from lacerations were noted.

The diagnosis of school refusal along with anxiety, being behind academically, being deconditioned, and healing fractures were made. The pediatrician recommended several steps to gradually get him back into school. He recommended a meeting with his guidance counselor, school administration, parents and the teenager to figure out how to address the mobility issues at school so he wouldn’t be so tired, and develop a plan to gradually catch him up academically to his classmates. “You might be surprised how many other kids have had the same problems and the school can help. Maybe the first couple of days you will only go to school for a couple of hours and you can work in the library with one of the teachers. Then maybe increase this to half a day for another week. Then you might start to feel less tired and can stay longer the next week. I bet you probably have a friend or two in class who could leave a couple minutes before the bell and be able to push your wheelchair to your next class so you won’t have to use all your energy just getting around too. There are lots of possibilities,” the pediatrician said. “Maybe a friend or two could come over after school and you could do some school work or just hang out for a bit,” he went on. “I miss playing in the band and its first period in the morning” the boy offered. “We’ll maybe for the first couple of days, you can go to band, and afterward one of your friends can help you to the library to meet with a teacher. Band is a great thing to help you regain your strength, plus its always fun to make music,” he encouraged the teen. “I also think that it would be helpful to talk with a counselor about some of the worries you have in general and about school. I think that person can help you to learn some ways to better help yourself when you start being worried,” the pediatrician suggested.

The patient’s clinical course at followup 1 month later showed that the teen was in school for 1/2 day consistently. He was still behind in some of his classes but was making progress. He had one meeting with counselor and his cast was to be removed in ~2 weeks. “I’m still worried about my classes and being so far behind, but once my cast is off I think I’ll do better,” he stated. It was a slow process but over the next 6 weeks he eventually returned to school full-time consistently.

School within society is an institution designed to provide learning opportunities to students under the direction of teachers. The curriculum is usually designed to provide academic content in formal subjects necessary for the adult world (such as instruction in mathematics, language, science, social studies, arts, physical education) but also other knowledge and skills for the adult world (i.e. personal safety, communication skills, working in teams, etc.). Specific schools may or may not offer specific courses of instruction such as religious education, learning disability education, gifted/talented education, vocational education, etc.. In the developed and developing world, most individuals have attended some type of formal schooling at some time in their lives. Formal education is usually viewed as desirable even in locations where formal education may be less common as it is seen as an avenue for improved job opportunity, and economic and social improvement. All, or almost all students, at one point or another, wish they didn’t have to go to school. Absenteeism for some children becomes a problem. It affects ~ 1 of 7 children in the United States or ~6 million children.

School refusal (sometimes also referred to as school phobia or school avoidance) is most common in the 5-7 year olds and the 11-14 year olds, i.e. around the entry to school or middle school, but can occur at all school ages. School refusal often occurs after a time where the child has spent more time with the parent (school vacation or short illness) or after a stressful event such as a death in the family, or moving. Children entering school may be concerned about the new situation and appropriately are concerned about separating from their parents. This is a normal experience and usually improves within a short amount of time with reassurance and beneficial classroom experiences. Older children may have true fears about school based on their experiences such as bullying, violence or fearing a particular adult. Other children have continued separation issues from their parents and yet still want the school experience. This often occurs when parents are experiencing life stressors themselves such as an illness, death, divorce, loss of job etc.. Children may feel that they need to be with the parent more than being at school.

Children often have externalizing behaviors such as tantrums, sleep problems including nightmares and enuresis, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, and other fears. Physical complaints are common such as stomachache, headache, or sore throat, which often occurs on school mornings but improves as soon as the child is allowed not to attend school. Children may be more clingy, follow parents around the house and express excessive worry about the parent or other things such as monsters, weather events (i.e. tornados, lightening, etc..), fires, burglers, etc..

Once children start into a pattern of avoiding school and isolating themselves, it become more difficult to re-integrate. Understanding the underlying reason or reasons (often this is multifactorial), along with adult support (such as parents, general education and special education teachers, guidance counselors, school administrators, mental health providers, physicians, etc..) can assist the student to re-integrate and be successful at school. Communication and setting reasonable expectations are important. Reentry plans are important and can be simple or more elaborate. A slow-to-warm kindergartener may just need the kindergarten teacher to meet him at the school door for a few more days. A teenager returning after a traumatic event may need a gradual progressive plan that extends the amount of time and activities at school over 1 or more weeks. The student should know who they can talk with or where to go if they are feeling overwhelmed, but also should not excessively use those resources to get out of regular classroom activities. Other strategies include encouraging/enforcing regular routines at school and home, assigning a peer/buddy to assist the child, providing appropriate academic supports including flexible scheduling or alternative educational placements, addressing school/community safety issues, and encouraging extracurricular/community activities.

Truancy is different than school refusal as truant students do you not have emotional problems associated with going to school, often hide their absences from parents and authority figures, and are engaged in their preferred activities or may be involved in illegal activities. The juvenile justice system has as one of its goals to assist youth into developing other prosocial skills including returning to school. Homelessness also contributes to absenteeism but is not school refusal.

Learning Point
Reasons for school absenteeism include:

  • School refusal/phobia
    • Anxiety
      • Separation anxiety
      • School/performance anxiety
      • Generalized anxiety disorder
      • Obsessive compulsive disorder
      • Post traumatic stress disorder
      • Panic attacks
      • Other fears – agoraphobia
    • Depression
    • Inadequate schooling/education
    • Learning disabilities
    • Physical illness, especially chronic illness
    • Physical safety issues at school/community, including bullying and violence
    • Parent related problem
      • Abuse
      • Mental illness
      • Physical illness
      • Poor parenting skills
      • Lack of basic needs – food, clothing, shelter
      • Stressful life events
  • Truancy*
    • Mental health issues including anxiety, depression, personality disorders
    • Substance abuse
    • Poor social situation/environment
    • Poor social skills
    • Poor parenting skills/parental monitoring
    • Inadequate schooling/education
    • Learning disabilities
  • Physical illness or pregnancy
  • Other
    • Lack of basic needs especially homelessness

*reasons often overlap with school refusal

Questions for Further Discussion
1. What parent education do you offer for separation anxiety in young children?
2. What often do you offer for teens who are behaviorally defiant?

Related Cases

To Learn More
To view pediatric review articles on this topic from the past year check PubMed.

Evidence-based medicine information on this topic can be found at SearchingPediatrics.com, the National Guideline Clearinghouse and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

Information prescriptions for patients can be found at MedlinePlus for these topics: Phobias and Child Behavior Disorders.

To view current news articles on this topic check Google News.

To view images related to this topic check Google Images.

To view videos related to this topic check YouTube Videos.

Kidger J, Araya R, Donovan J, Gunnell D. The effect of the school environment on the emotional health of adolescents: a systematic review. Pediatrics. 2012 May; 129(5):925-49. Epub 2012 Apr 2.

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. School Refusal. Available from the Internet at https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-Who-Wont-Go-To-School-(Separation-Anxiety)-007.aspx (rev. 10/2013, cited 2/21/2017).

United States Department of Education. Chronic Absenteeism in The Nation’s Schools. Available from the Internet at https://www2.ed.gov/datastory/chronicabsenteeism.html (rev. 10/27/2016, cited 2/21/17).

Fernandez-Suarez A, Herrero J, Perez B, Juarros-Basterretxea J, Rodriguez-Diaz FJ. Risk Factors for School Dropout in a Sample of Juvenile Offenders. Front Psychol. 2016 Dec 26;7:1993.

National Association of School Psychologists. School Refusal: Information for Educators. Available from the Internet at http://www.nasponline.org/Documents/Resources%20and%20Publications/Handouts/Families%20and%20Educators/School_Refusal_Information_for_Educators.pdf. (cited 2/21/17).

Donna M. D’Alessandro, MD
Professor of Pediatrics, University of Iowa Children’s Hospital