Growth charts are a standard part of well-baby and well-child checkups. Pediatricians use them to track your child’s growth, and over time, that pattern can paint a helpful picture of their development and even identify when there may be a problem.

A growth chart plots your baby’s height, weight and head size from birth. It depicts a plot of lines that create a growth curve, an indicator of how much they are increasing in their early years.

Babies and kids grow at their own pace and there’s a wide range of healthy shapes and sizes among children, says pediatrician Dr. Pilar Bradshaw. Relative sizes compared to other children are expressed on growth charts in percentiles.

Dr. Bradshaw says growth is determined by many factors, so it’s important to note that a child who registers at a higher percentile on the chart isn’t necessarily doing better than a child who is in a lower percentile. The specific numbers don’t matter as much as the overall trend.

“Your child can be healthy at any percentile,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “Don’t get stuck on the numbers, is what I tell parents. It’s the trend that matters.”

The growth chart graph is not intended to be used on its own for diagnosing issues in a child, but it contributes to an overall assessment. The chart can sometimes help identify if a problem is developing.

“When we start to worry about growth curves is when we see a child growing at a steady rate, suddenly stop growing,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “Or sometimes we’ll notice that a kid is going way off the top of their growth chart, growing way faster than we expect. Those are going to cause us to have different conversations with parents, based on the change in the pattern.”

If doctors notice a change, it may or may not be an indicator of a problem. They will look at other issues such as a child’s overall well-being, environment, and genetic background. For example:

  • Is the child meeting other developmental milestones?
  • Are there other signs that the child is not healthy?
  • How tall or heavy are the child’s parents and siblings?
  • Was the child born prematurely?
  • Has the child started puberty earlier or later than average?

Overall, while growth charts and growth curves offer a useful guide, they aren’t the whole story.

“Growth curves for us are just one tool in evaluating how your child is developing,” Dr. Bradshaw says.

How babies grow in their first two years says little about how big or small they will become as an adult, Dr. Bradshaw says. Babies and older children are likely to have growth spurts as well as periods of slow growth.

Don’t hesitate to talk with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns about your child’s growth.