The Important First 1,000 Days
The first 1,000 days of a baby’s life are important because it is the child’s nutrition intake in this period that affects future development, especially growth of the brain. The first 1,000 days of life is the time roughly spanning the time of the child’s conception in the mother’s womb and the second birthday. This is the time when the foundations of health, growth and brain development are established.
During this critical period, all organs and tissues are formed and set the foundations of lifelong health. Adequate nutrition during the first 1000 days is therefore one of the fundamental prerequisites for survival, growth, optimal development and lifelong health. Good maternal health is MOST important, especially the mother’s nutrition status during pregnancy. The infant must also be given healthy nutrition right from day one.
Meeting specific nutritional needs is especially important for infants as they have a higher need for nutritional support. Breastfed infants have the best start in life in terms of growth and metabolic development. Breastfeeding benefits infant growth quality and the development of the metabolic system. It provides balanced nutrition that matches the metabolic needs of the growing infant, promoting a balance in the diet.
When the lactating mother’s suffering from malnutrition, the production of breast milk is reduced in quantity and quality. This is what happens in poor societies that suffer from a lack of good nutrition, poor maternal care, poor water sanitation and hygiene and other basic causes such as poverty.
It is a matter of concern that deficiency of certain vitamins in the mother affects the nutritional quality of breast milk. These vitamins are of the A, B , C and D category, which are normally found in breast milk and are mainly influenced by the quality of the mother’s diet. The absence of this micronutrient (minerals and vitamins) is a cause of worry as deficiency in mother’s milk has a very negative impact on the child’s health. The infant faces a continuous risk of multiple problems, as well as infections, growth retardation o, wasting and/or stunting.
The periods of brain development that can be subject to nutritional deficiencies are becoming increasingly well-defined. This can be corrected with nutritional interventions during the fetal period as well as in the first years of an infant’s life.
While the human brain continues to develop and change throughout life, the most rapid period of brain growth is in the last trimester of pregnancy and the first two-three years of life. In the first year after birth, there is rapid growth of the brain. The first two years of a child’s life is a great time when nutrition interventions ensure normal development of the child. In case, nutrition is lacking, the child suffers from many deficiencies and sometimes they can be fatal.
While the brain requires all nutrients for growth, certain nutrients, such as protein, polyunsaturated fatty acids, iron, zinc, copper, iodine and vitamins A, B6, and B12 are particularly critical. Of these, iron, exemplifies the necessity for adequate nutrition at specific times of brain growth to ensure the full developmental potential.
Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. Maternal anemia is also prevailing worldwide and has been highlighted as per WHA targets ( reduction by 50 %)as a key strategy/intervention to reduce malnutrition In global terms, an estimated 47% of all preschool-aged children and 42% of all pregnant women are anaemic. This occurs because of iron deficiency. The periods of peak iron requirement for the infant’s brain are the fetal/neonatal period and infancy/toddlerhood (6 months to 3 years).
Iron supplements during these key periods of peak iron need, particularly during pregnancy, have proven to be an effective deterrent for later brain impairment. Based on what is known about the magnitude of brain development in the first 1,000 days of an infant’s life, the roots of a person’s behaviour are laid down very early in life. It is therefore very important that malnutrition of a child be prevented as it can affect brain function in adulthood. It is far better to avoid food deficiencies through nutritional programs. It is very important to be aware of an infant’s nutritional deficiencies and to give the infant or young child a nutritionally balanced diet that has all the minerals and vitamins required. At the same time, the lactating mother should also not suffer from malnutrition because the deficiencies in her breast-milk will be passed on to the infant.
In developing countries like Pakistan, poverty and malnutrition weaken the early foundations in the infant’s growth and often lead to early death. Malnutrition is the main culprit and is a major challenge in Pakistan as in so many other developing countries.
At least 200 million children living in developing countries fail to meet their true developmental potential. The problem of stunting or slow growth in children is a direct result of this. Malnutrition in babies is also the root-cause of infectious diseases and susceptibility to environmental hazards. However, malnutrition is something that can be controlled. Unlike many other influences that are tremendously difficult to change, the quality of nutrition can be enhanced and necessary steps taken to provide a balanced diet to the underserved population. This lacks in Pakistan where awareness of malnutrition is not given any importance at all and the government, civil society, politicians and the parliament are oblivious to the damage that malnutrition is rendering to the nation’s present and future.
by Mansoor Abbas