The Impact of Early Nutrition on Child Development and Health
By Seerat Fatima
Nutrients essential for the body’s proper functioning include both macronutrients and micronutrients. Carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals are all essential in adequate amounts. Nutritional requirements are primarily based on the body’s need for each nutrient. These requirements depend on various factors, including age, gender, physical activity level, income, habits, and environmental conditions.
Food choices vary among different age groups. Infants, toddlers, school-age children, adolescents, adults, and older adults all require different types of food for their development and nourishment. Infants are children aged 0 to 12 months, or up to 1 year old. A healthy diet is essential for their proper growth and development, as this is a crucial stage of life.
For the first 4 to 6 months, a child’s nourishment should come primarily from milk. No solid foods or liquids other than milk should be introduced during the early months, as this could be detrimental to their health. Mother’s milk provides immunity to the child by introducing antibodies that are of prime importance for strengthening the body. Galactose, found in milk, helps build nerve tissues and strengthen brain cells.
There is a dire need to improve children’s eating behaviour. Caregiver behaviour has a significant influence on a child’s health. Caregivers should prioritize healthy foods and establish regular meal schedules. Distractions like television and games should be avoided during meals. Children should not be forced to eat, and a balanced diet is essential for proper organ and tissue development, making children active, energetic, less anxious, and better learners
Some alternatives, such as formula milk, cannot provide the same level of immunity and carry a higher risk of bacterial growth. It’s essential to avoid giving infants milk with high levels of fats, as found in cow’s and buffalo’s milk. Semi-solid foods can be introduced to children between the ages of six to nine months. Fresh juice, egg whites, and cow’s milk are suitable options. Rich protein foods should be avoided due to babies’ sensitive digestive systems. Easily digestible foods and those low in sugar and salt should be introduced to children; otherwise, it can lead to diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps.
A slightly higher amount of proteins and fats can be added to a child’s diet at the age of nine to 12 months, including egg yolks, fruits, and vegetables. Toddlers and preschool children are typically between the ages of 1 to 5 years. Their nutritional requirements are primarily focused on protein, as their bodies require more energy for growth, development, physical activities, and learning compared to infants and sedentary adults. A balanced diet that includes foods from all food groups is encouraged. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and healthy fats are essential for the healthy development of toddlers. Protein should be a vital part of their diet but should not be overconsumed, as excessive protein intake can negatively impact the kidneys and the digestion, and lead to dehydration. Adequate diet, hydration, and regular physical activity are essential.
Unfortunately, in Pakistan, only 38 percent of children under six months of age are breastfed properly, while the remaining 62 percent face improper nourishment, increasing their risk of low immunity. Children born with lower immunity have weaker immune cells that are still developing. A mother’s low immunity can also affect the child’s immunity and antibody reception.
Premature birth is one of the primary causes of low immunity in children, as antibodies are not fully absorbed to immunize the child. According to a UNICEF report, nearly 860,000 premature births are registered every year in Pakistan, leading to various fatal diseases, including respiratory disorders, jaundice, temperature regulation issues, and infectious diseases. Consequently, the percentage of stunted and wasted children has increased.
Approximately 102,000 children die from diseases related to premature birth in Pakistan. During infancy and early childhood, the body undergoes rapid growth and development, requiring proper and healthy nutrition.
Children’s physical growth is susceptible to numerous health issues during this period. Infancy is a critical period for proper nutrition, as any negligence can lead to nutrient deficiencies, such as anemia. Mother’s milk is naturally low in sodium, so switching to a high-sodium diet can lead to significant health issues later in life, particularly hypertension.
Regrettably, recent research has shown that children aged seven to eight months are often given desserts and sweets more frequently than natural fruits and vegetables. Similarly, children aged one and a half years are more likely to consume unhealthy items like french fries, which can be detrimental to their nourishment. This has contributed to a rapid increase in obesity rates among children.
The major consequence of poor infant nourishment is the development of low immunity, which leaves children vulnerable to various viruses and bacteria, increasing the risk of infections and other viral diseases that their immune systems cannot effectively combat. Tragically, the death rate among children in Pakistan is approximately 60 percent due to infectious diseases. Children under the age of five are particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases, including poliomyelitis, flu, colds, dengue fever, hepatitis, and malaria.
Proper maternal health also significantly impacts a child’s health. The complete nourishment of the embryo or fetus depends on the mother, as the mother’s blood supplies all nutrients to the fetus. A mother’s diet must be proper and healthy, with protein being a significant part of their diet. Consuming one egg per day, along with regular consumption of meat, fish, pulses, and legumes, which are rich sources of protein, is essential.
Fresh fruits and vegetables should be included in their daily meals. Additionally, calcium is a major requirement, with half a litre of milk being included in their daily meal planning. Meals should encompass foods from all food groups, including milk and yogurt to promote a healthy gut. The diet should be healthy but not excessive, and spicy foods should be avoided. Children are more vulnerable to unhygienic and unsanitary conditions.
Children should be taught the importance of cleanliness as part of their learning process. Handwashing habits should be encouraged among children, and personal hygiene should be the responsibility of caregivers. Oral hygiene is necessary to protect against dental caries and maintain a healthy gut. Infants born with lower immunity are at the highest risk of infection. Proper vaccination is mandatory for developing a strong immune system. Vaccines play a crucial role in developing antibodies that fight viruses and protect the body from infections. Failure to vaccinate children in a timely manner can lead to potentially fatal infections.
Pakistan has the third most unvaccinated children globally, primarily due to low literacy rates and misconceptions about vaccine safety. Each year, nearly three million children do not complete their full vaccine course, leaving them highly vulnerable to diseases. It is vital to educate people about the importance of vaccination and dispel myths and doubts surrounding vaccines.
There is a dire need to improve children’s eating behaviour. Caregiver behaviour has a significant influence on a child’s health. Caregivers should prioritize healthy foods and establish regular meal schedules. Distractions like television and games should be avoided during meals. Children should not be forced to eat, and a balanced diet is essential for proper organ and tissue development, making children active, energetic, less anxious, and better learners.
Fats, especially polyunsaturated fats, are crucial for brain development and should be included in children’s diets. Good nutrition contributes to a child’s happiness, energy, reduced anxiety, and improved intellectual abilities.
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