This week’s three-part blog series by ChildFund International explores behavioral links between parents and their malnourished children.
Guest post by David Shanklin, Senior Health Specialist, ChildFund International
In ChildFund’s work around the world, we find that mothers often don’t receive enough support, or credit, for starting their children off to a healthy life.
It all begins with breastfeeding; yet many mothers worldwide are still not aware of the importance of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of an infant’s life. In fact, many cultures encourage erroneous practices, such as including special fluids or foods that introduce early infant infections and gastric problems. Exclusive breastfeeding begins soon after delivery, with the feeding of colostrum, an antibody- and mineral-rich breast fluid that a mother produces as precursor to milk. It’s nature’s perfect food, providing newborns with immunity to infections and providing all of the nutrients and water the baby needs. During those first months, infants should receive no other foods or fluids (including water). Even as complementary foods are introduced around the sixth month, breastfeeding should continue, and may continue up to two years or more.
Busy Moms Need Information
ChildFund educates moms and caregivers on the best feeding practices for children’s nourishment. We’ve found that because mothers are time-challenged, they may limit the number of feedings for the infant so that they coincide with when the family normally eats. They’re inadvertently forcing adult behaviors on an infant whose natural feeding times are much more frequent.
As the child grows into a toddler, nutritional needs remain high and require vigilance, especially in the developing world. Stressed and busy moms may not be fully in the moment when feeding their children and may not notice if the child is eating adequately, e.g., young children can drop food; other children may steal the young child’s portion or the child may be a picky eater and simply not eat enough before the meal ends. Using a separate plate for the young child’s meal will help moms track appetite and amounts consumed.
If moms are inattentive, the child may not learn to associate eating with love, patience and caring, or may be highly selective in eating new or different foods. It usually takes a mom’s gentle coaxing to entice a child to eat a few more bites or try new foods.
Adult Food Versus Child Food
Young children also need nutrient-rich foods. If the family eats from a common pot, which is the case in many homes around the world, then family members may not notice the amount or nutritional quality of the youngest children’s intake. “Adult” foods can be lower in energy and micronutrient density, leading to a habit of underconsumption by the young child.
Animal protein is highly desirable for young children to grow properly, but it’s often not easily available to impoverished families, and parents tend to believe it’s too expensive for a child to consume. Over time, young children may become accustomed to inadequate dietary intakes, and demand less nourishing food during mealtimes.
Children who are undernourished tend to be short for their age, but otherwise appear to be normal. Micronutrient shortages in the child’s diet also will not be readily apparent without complex biochemical analyses, and those tests are simply not available to most of the world’s children who live in poverty. And because they lack the telltale signs of acute malnutrition (e.g., wasting), undernourished children often don’t get the help they need.
The sad truth is that 3.5 million children die each year related to undernutrition. At ChildFund, we’re working to address root causes and turn back that statistic so that more children can reach their full potential.