What is the role of nutrition in child development?

Nutrition is very important for everyone, but it is especially important for children because it is directly linked to all aspects of their growth and development; factors which will have direct ties to their level of health as adults. A child’s nutritional future begins before conception with the mother’s nutritional status prior to pregnancy. A chronically-undernourished mother is likely to give birth to an underweight baby, who may be stunted as a child and in turn give birth to malnourished baby.

The period from birth to the age of three is a time of rapid growth and represents a singular opportunity to provide a child with a strong nutritional and immunological foundation. Intellectual and physical growth is the most rapid, with doubling of brain size and quadrupling of body weight. If a child is malnourished during these early years, much of the damage is irreversible.

Each baby should be exclusively breastfed for six months to benefit in terms of health, intelligence and productivity. Breastmilk is the perfect food – it contains all the nutrients and micronutrients an infant needs for normal growth during the first six months of life. Breastmilk contains hundreds of health-enhancing cells, proteins, fats, hormones, enzymes and other factors found nowhere else but in mothers milk.

Tiny doses of minerals, vitamins and trace elements can mean a difference between life and death for mothers and children. Micronutrients – particularly iron, vitamin A, iodine and folate – play a vital role in the mother’s survival in pregnancy and childbirth, and in the child’s development, as follows:

(1) Vitamin A is essential for the functioning of the immune system. Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) causes blindness and renders children susceptible to common childhood killers: measles, diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia. Increasing the vitamin A intake of populations with VAD can decrease childhood deaths from such illnesses by 25 per cent.

(2) Iodine is a critical nutrient for the proper functioning of the thyroid gland which regulates growth and metabolism. Iodine deficiency is the primary cause of preventable learning disabilities and brain damage, having the most devastating impact on the brain of the developing foetus.

(3) The body needs iron to manufacture haemoglobin – the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen around the body – and several enzymes necessary for muscle, brain and the immune system. The body’s iron requirements increase during menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding and high-growth periods. Iron-folate supplements during pregnancy help prevent anaemia....