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Pediatric Intestinal Failure

What is Intestinal Failure?

Intestinal failure happens when the small intestine can’t properly absorb nutrients, vitamins, and water from food. Some babies are born with missing or dysfunctional small intestines, for which they may need surgery.

In children, intestinal failure can lead to malnourishment, poor growth, problems with the liver, kidneys, and gallbladder, and other complications.

What Causes Intestinal Failure?

The most common cause of intestinal failure is short bowel syndrome, which usually happens when a large part of the small intestine has been damaged or surgically removed. Babies who are at risk for intestinal failure usually have had surgery for one of the following problems:

  • Born with intestines outside the body (gastroschisis)
  • Born with narrowed or blocked intestines (atresia)
  • Born with problems in the intestinal lining
  • Inflammation and infection in the intestines (necrotizing enterocolitis)
  • Crohn disease
  • Twisting of the intestine (volvulus)

Two other major causes of intestinal failure are:

  • Neuromuscular problems in the intestines, preventing the muscles from moving stool through the intestines properly
  • Congenital diseases of the intestinal lining, causing poor absorption of nutrients and malnutrition

Symptoms of Intestinal Failure

Common symptoms of intestinal failure include:

  • Severe diarrhea
  • Poor growth or weight loss
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dehydration
  • Sepsis (severe blood infection)


How is Intestinal Failure Diagnosed?

If your baby has had intestinal surgery and shows any of these symptoms, the pediatrician may request one or more of the following tests to determine the cause:

  • Blood tests to check vitamin and mineral levels for evidence of malnutrition
  • Blood cultures to check for bacterial infection (sepsis) or fungal infection
  • Diagnostic imaging, including CT and ultrasound scans, to evaluate the liver, spleen, kidneys, and bowels
  • X-rays to check for bowel obstructions

Treatments for Intestinal Failure

Children with intestinal failure need proper nutrition and fluids to replace those lost to poor absorption. Among the treatment options are:

  • Total parenteral nutrition (TPN, or nutrition through veins) soon after diagnosis
  • Transition to home enteral feeding (through the intestines) to minimize the risk of infections and liver damage from TPN
  • Enteral (intestinal) nutrition of special formula through a feeding tube
  • Advanced, non-transplant surgical options, including bowel-lengthening surgery

Intestinal transplants for children who can’t wean off the TPN

Learn more about our comprehensive Intestinal Rehabilitation Program at Children’s.

Children's Team

Children's Team


Vahe Badalyan

Vahe Badalyan

Director, Celiac Disease Program
Clarivet Torres

Clarivet Torres

Director, Intestinal Rehabilitation Program


Intestinal Rehabilitation Program

Our intestinal rehabilitation experts provide advanced, comprehensive services for children with intestinal failure.

Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition

Our gastroenterology experts provide expert diagnosis and treatments for children with digestive, liver and nutrition disorders.


Whether your infant has arrived prematurely or has a critical illness, the Children’s National Hospital top-ranked team assists in coordinating every service you and your baby need, including consultations, assessments, emergency treatments and continuing care.

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