Growing bodies and minds getting too little too late

Ahead of World Food Day, on October 16th, UNICEF has released Part II of ‘From the First Hour of Life: Making the case for improved infant and young child feeding everywhere,’ a global report mapping infant and young child feeding practices. Part I, released on 29th July, focuses on breastfeeding; part II, released on 14th October, focuses on complementary feeding for children aged six months to two years.

Science provides unquestionable evidence that the first two years of life are forever. Yet, over the last 25 years I’ve witnessed how mothers and families in Latin America, Africa and Asia struggle to provide their young children with a diet that meets the minimum requirements for growth and development. The report that we release today, shows that five in six children under the age of two are not receiving enough of the nutritious foods they need to grow, develop and thrive. These children are the most in need, but too often they are receiving too little food, too late.

The nutritional needs for growth and development between 6 months and 2 years of age are greater per kilogram of body weight than at any other time in life. In this period, good nutrition – combining a varied diet of nutrient-dense foods and breastmilk – is critical so that children benefit from all of the essential nutrients they need to grow and develop to their full potential. It is not an exaggeration to say that what, when and how a child eats can set the course of his or her life.

The figures are truly shocking – the youngest children are waiting too long for their first bites and far too few children are receiving enough of the nutritious foods they for their physical and cognitive development:

  • A third of all infants 6-8 months old are not yet eating solid foods, putting them at risk for undernutrition. Even more alarming is that nearly one in five infants 10-11 months old are still waiting for their first solid foods.
  • Just half of all children are fed the recommended minimum number of times per day, and only one-third eat a diverse diet – meaning from four or more food groups daily – increasing the risk for deficiencies in vitamins and minerals.
  • Only half of children aged six to 11 months receive any foods from animal sources – including fish, meat, eggs and dairy – which are essential to supply essential nutrients for growth and development such as zinc and iron.

We also should not forget that a caregiver’s role in feeding can be as important as the food itself. We need to do more to ensure that children are not only receiving the right amount of nutritious foods, but also that children’s foods are prepared hygienically, and that they are fed with love and care.

We have our work cut out for us

The first two years of life represent a critical opportunity to enhance a child’s future. However, they are a heavy burden to place on the shoulders of mothers and families alone. In reality, ensuring that children get the food they need requires the commitment of communities, societies and nations.

Making nutritious foods affordable and accessible to the poorest children will require stronger and targeted investments from governments and the private sector. Cash or in-kind transfers to vulnerable families; crop diversification and livestock initiatives; and fortification of staple foods are key to improving young children’s nutrition. Community-based health services that help caregivers learn better feeding, care and hygiene practices, and safe water and sanitation programmes are also vital.

Government leadership and contributions from key sectors – including health, agriculture, water and sanitation, social protection and education – as well as the private sector are needed to guarantee that nutritious food is available, affordable, safe and provided with care to all children.

Victor Aguayo is Associate Director of Nutrition at UNICEF

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  1. ‘WE ARE WHAT WE EAT’ is a nice sentence I have read in the Unites States of America. It is so true: our body and mind function accordingly to the ‘fuel’ we introduce daily. So always choose quality food. But which are the consequences for people who do not have a choice? And I am thinking of children and young people who need nutritious foods to grow, play, study, and become sane adults. Therefore I congratulate with UNICEF for advocating for stronger and better targeted investments from governments and the private sector. Creating, building, and nurturing partnerships aimed to ensure affordable foods, clean water and energy, and good healthcare help meet human basic needs.

    Also, please do not forget about children who live in countries in conflict or post-conflict situations where agriculture has stopped working and women might not be there anymore to feed children and young people. That is why protecting women becomes the core of developmental interventions. When I have been in Kenya, I have seen with my eyes how much work women do daily and most of it is to prepare food for households. But if they get killed or raped when walk long distances to collect water, if they are not healthy themselves, if they feel threatened by terrorists or criminal organizations, then they will not dedicate to the care of the future of this planet: children.

    A positive note is that most of women in developing countries have good understanding of what a balanced diet means. So they are able to mix carbohydrates, proteins, and vitamins (despite the poor quality and variety of foods available) to make sure that children get all they need. Education plays a significant role in advancing development not only in developing countries but also in the developed world where there is too much waste of food, water, and energy. And people suffer from obesity and diabetes. Virtue is always in the middle: not too little, not too much.

    Thanks for your outstanding work worldwide. Laura Gagliardone

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