I cannot relate to anything more exciting than a newborn baby, always small and sweet. Unlike other animals whose young ones are up and about almost immediately after birth, the human baby is so dependent on the mother that left on their own they cannot survive. This dependency does not just happen after birth, the health of a fetus is dependent on the health of its mother from conception. A small window of opportunity to determine the future outcome of child health exists. It starts after conception to the age of 2 years. This is the stage of vulnerability yet the most determinant of many biological processes that shape the human mind, growth, and development. Termed the first 1000 days!
The first 1000 days of life are the most formative years of a child. It is a critical time when body and cognitive functions develop. Cognitive development is the process of brain development and differentiation. The process occurs in stages, and every stage builds on the previous one and is dependent on the health of the mother to provide nutrients during pregnancy and appropriate feeding of the newborn after birth. Sources of nutrition for brain development include major food groups like protein, fats, and glucose. It is not a wonder then that the state of a woman’s health determines and affects the development of her future generations. Poor maternal health during pregnancy and a deficient diet of the infant is the foundation of poor mental development, low intelligent quotient, and antisocial behavior of a child. The subsequent poor academic performance leads to low productivity, creating a vicious cycle of poverty.
With this brief introduction, let us dive in and see how we can comprehensively impact a child
Risks associated with poor child health in the First 1000 Days
The first 1000 days of a child’s life is a period of great potential as well as vulnerability. It impacts future development including skills acquisition, education achievement, and productivity in adulthood. It is a period that predisposes a child to early life programming if the basic requirements of life are unmet. For example, an undernourished child is likely to have poor cognitive development, score poorly at school, and end up in the unskilled labor force. This is likely to create cycles of poverty where children born are subjected to the same inadequacy. Ample evidence supports that early nutrition inadequacy increases the risks of common non-communicable diseases like diabetes and obesity later in life.
Practices that Promote Child Health in the First 1000 Days
- Maternal state of health counts
The health of the mother determines pregnancy and childbirth outcomes. In the first 1000 days, the nutrition status and wellbeing of the mother are the first predictors of child growth and cognitive development. Children born to undernourished mothers are more likely to be underweight or small for the gestation period at birth. Improving maternal health is the first step to impact the first 1000 days of child development. This can only be achieved successfully when the nutrition status of girls and young women is prioritized before conception to improve the health environment of the fetus during pregnancy.
- Exclusive breastfeeding
Exclusive breastfeeding means feeding the child with only breast milk for the first six months. This is an important step toward positively impacting the nutrition status of the infant from the first day of life. It recommends early initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour after birth and continuing to breastfeed on demand for the next six months. The child should not be given any other meal unless prescribed medications. Breast milk is wholesome and consists of all nutrients for optimal growth of the infant for up to six months.
- Timely and quality of complementary feeding
After the first six months, the infant nutrition requirements exceed what breastmilk alone can provide. The timely introduction of complementary food must be introduced at this juncture to boost breastmilk. Complementary feeding, therefore, should be diverse to provide adequate nutrients to provide energy for the increasing activity, protein for the rapid muscle gain, and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to enhance the immune status. Some guiding principles of complementary feeding include continued breastfeeding from 6 to 24 months or beyond, hygienic preparation of child food, starting with a small amount of food, and gradually increasing to meet the energy demands of the growing child. Food consistency and varieties should also increase according to nutritional needs. Include major food groups; carbohydrates, proteins, vegetables, and fruits.
- Weight monitoring
Weight gain is an important indicator of a baby’s growth and development. Weight monitoring, therefore, is a critical process that aid to monitor how the baby is growing. Weight monitoring should start at birth, weigh the child monthly for the first six months, then every two months from six to one year, and at least every quarter thereafter. Weight monitoring helps identify children with inappropriate weight gain. Low weight gain and excessive weight gain are both predictors of poor child health.
- Stick to the immunization schedule
Vaccination of infants helps build the immune response against common vaccine-preventable diseases. It is deemed most cost-effective in reducing the burden of early childhood illnesses compared to actual medical care costs of treating the disease. In most impoverished families, vaccination has the socio-economic benefits of reducing out-of-pocket spending and lost productivity when seeking medical attention. Other benefits include general improved cognitive functions, better school performance, and increased productivity in adulthood.
- Practice good sanitation and hygiene
Access to adequate sanitation is critical in the prevention of early childhood diseases. In particular, diarrhea, the second leading cause of death in children increases the risk of chronic undernutrition. Appropriate growth and cognitive development are usually undermined in a child raised in an unsanitary environment that lacks proper waste disposal, available safe drinking water, and hygienic food practices.
- Social interactions
A loving environment provides a safe place for child interactions. It builds their confidence and emotions. It enhances cognitive and emotional development for the growing baby.
- Physical activity
Just like everyone else, infants and babies require a boost of daily physical activity. It enhances their physical and cognitive development, helps build strong muscles, bones, and joints, and improves motor functions and balance. Therefore, a child requires a safe and secure environment to roll, crawl and move.
- Good sleep
Babies tend to sleep all the time and wake up only to feed. It is like a cycle. This can be scary for the new mother who keeps on checking whether the baby is breathing. It is normal. Sleep provides the perfect opportunity for physical and brain development. During sleep, a child’s brain develops and differentiates allowing for critical faculties like language, ability to learn, and social behaviors to manifest.
Child development is multifaceted. It starts long before the child is born. Ensuring that the potential mother has good health through proper nutrition, has emotional and social support impacts the nutritional status of the newborn. After birth, early initiation of breastfeeding provides adequate nutrition to the demands of the growing baby, close monitoring of their weight, and adequate sleep are all important aspects of both physical and cognitive development. With this in mind, we can strive to provide adequate nutrition and social support to the females in our households and impact future generations.
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