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BackgroundThere is increasing global focus on small and nutritionally at-risk infants aged <6 months (<6 m). Current WHO guidelines recommend weight-for-length z-score (WLZ) for enrolment to malnutrition treatment programmes but acknowledge a weak evidence-base. This review aims to inform future guidelines by examining which anthropometric criteria best identify infants <6 m at high risk of mortality/morbidity.MethodsWe searched Medline, EMBASE, CINAHL, Global Health, Cochrane Library and POPLINE for studies conducted in low- and middle-income countries and published between 1990 and October 2020. We included studies reporting anthropometric assessment of nutritional status in infants <6 m and assessed the association with subsequent morbidity or mortality.ResultsA total of 19 studies were included in the final review, covering 20 countries, predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa. WLZ had poor reliability and poor prognostic ability to identify infants at risk of death. Mid-upper arm circumference (MUAC) and weight-for-age z-score (WAZ) were better at identifying infants at risk of mortality/morbidity. MUAC-for-age z-score did not perform better than using a single MUAC cut-off. Suggested MUAC cut-offs for this age group varied by context, ranging from 10.5 to 11.5 cm. The assessment for reliability showed that length was difficult to measure, making WLZ the least reliable indicator overall.ConclusionEvidence from our review suggests that a change in current practice is necessary. To better identify small and nutritionally at-risk infants <6 m WAZ and/or MUAC rather than WLZ should be used. Future research should explore possible benefits for programme coverage, impact and cost-effectiveness. Research should also examine if context-specific MUAC thresholds are needed.

Original publication




Journal article


Clinical medicine insights. Pediatrics

Publication Date





London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK.