Your child’s future health is influenced by nutrition in the early stages of his life.
Health authorities all over the world have highlighted the importance of good nutrition in the first 1000 days of your child’s life. The first 1000-day period of your child’s life begins right from the moment of conception (Day 0) and lasts through the entire pregnancy (Day 0-270) right up to his second birthday (Day 1000).
The importance of proper nutrition during this 1000-day period cannot be stressed enough. During this critical period of your child’s life, there is a tremendous amount of growth and development that occurs in several key areas such as cognitive (brain) development and physical growth and development. By ensuring that you provide the right nutrition during this 1000-day period, you are also ensuring your child’s future health, wellbeing and success.
In addition, a new field of medicine known as the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD), has uncovered new evidence that shows how environmental stressors (e.g. smoking, overweight) and poor nutrition during pregnancy and early childhood causes greater susceptibility in children developing noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease in later adult life. Quite possibly, this vulnerability to NCDs can be passed on to their own children.
This article explains why the need for ensuring adequate nutrition during the first 1000 days and the consequences if nutritional needs are not met. It also explains the new field of the DOHaD theory.
The importance of nutrition during pregnancy (Day 0-270)
Proper nutrition is important since the moment your child is conceived (Day 0) and throughout pregnancy (which lasts for around 39-40 weeks, or around 270 days). Healthy eating is crucial as the energy and nutrient intake during this time is channelled toward nourishing the foetus to support his rapid growth and development. Remember that the only source of nourishment for the foetus is what you eat and drink.
An example of the rapid growth is the fact that most of the brain’s connections are established in the first few years of life, beginning in the womb itself. The neural tube starts forming 16 days after conception, and at around the eighth week of pregnancy several nerve cells branch out to connect with each other to form basic neural pathways. This process continues until birth, when the brain grows to about a quarter of its adult size. As such, it is important that all pregnant mothers take extra care to ensure that their nutritional intake covers all the necessary nutrients. Hence, adequate nutrition starting from pregnancy (and right up to the second year of life) is therefore absolutely necessary for optimal brain development. This is the time when your child’s foundation for future cognitive ability is established.
Also, by ensuring that the pregnant mother’s nutritional requirements are met, she will gain the appropriate amount of weight during her pregnancy. In turn, this will ensure that the foetus will grow and develop properly. Malnutrition (over- or under-nutrition) during pregnancy may result in either low- or high- birth weight babies. There are adverse effects for either situation, such as:
- Small babies with low birth weight often face complications, which affect their main organs. As a result, they are more vulnerable when exposed to infectious diseases. It has been shown that when they are adults, they may face greater risks of developing Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and coronary heart disease.
- Large babies with high birth weight may grow up to become an overweight/obese adult, which also exposes them to higher risks of developing Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and coronary heart disease as an adult.
Therefore, it is crucial that the nutritional needs of both the mother and foetus are met. Read on the next section (page 10) on the essential nutrients during pregnancy and for further information on appropriate weight gain for pregnant mothers, refer to the article entitled “Healthy Weight Gain during Pregnancy” at page 28.
The importance of nutrition during the growing stages of infancy and early childhood (Day 271 – 1000)
Nutrition will continue to play a crucial role from the time your baby is born and into the first few years of his life, as it marks the most significant period for physical and mental development (which is known as the “formative years”), spanning the first six months after birth until his second birthday.
This is a critical period as he will never again experience such rapid growth and development at any other time in his life – this is also the time when his foundation for future cognitive ability, school success, and productivity is set.
During this rapid growth period, infants under two years of age are also susceptible to malnutrition if mothers do not provide the right nutrition. Malnutrition encompasses both under- and over-nutrition. If your child is not given the proper amount of both macro- and micronutrients during this critical growing stage, he may face some irreversible negative effects, which includes:
- Under-nutrition: is associated with more than one third of the global disease burden for children under five. Providing infants and young children with proper nutrition improves their chances of survival and promotes healthy growth and development, thus lowering morbidity and mortality rates, risk of chronic disease, and promotes better overall development. Young children who are under-nourished will also face impediments to their behavioural and cognitive development, which can lead to future deficiencies in learning.
- Over-nutrition: this can cause children to become overweight or obese, thus increasing their risk of growing up to become overweight or obese adults as well. Consequently, this will increase their risk of developing other NCDs such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.
It is therefore important to help your child meet his energy and nutrient needs through appropriate feeding practices to give him the best head start. Babies should be exclusively breastfed from birth up to six months of age, and a lactating mother needs to ensure her diet contains the necessary nutrients to ensure a healthy production of quality breast milk. Nutrition continues to play a critical role as you move into the complementary feeding phase when your child is around six-months-old up to two years old. Read on next section on page 12 on how to provide the best head start for your child from birth to 2 years old.
Did you know?
A readily observable effect of undernutrition is stunting, or being too short for his age. This condition occurs due to a lack of nutrients, which triggers the growing child’s body to sacrifice growth (and consequently development) for survival. Under-nutrition can occur during foetal development when the mother is malnourished or during early childhood. Stunting often has permanent effects which can lead to premature death due to vital organs that do not develop fully.
DOHaD in a nutshell
It is now understood that most, if not all NCDs have their roots early in the life of a child. A poor start in life is linked to an increased risk to a number of NCDs, including heart disease, obesity, diabetes and certain cancers. According to the DOHaD theory, certain environmental factors that affect changes in development during early life (at conception, and/or during foetal life, infancy and early childhood) can have long term impact on health and disease risk later in life.
These environmental factors include poor dietary pattern, sedentary lifestyle, smoking and even stress. A great deal of attention has been given to the detrimental effects that under-nutrition will have from the time of conception till birth. It has also been demonstrated that the effects can span generations and remain measurable up to two generations later.
This theory therefore also emphasises the utmost importance of proper nutrition and healthy lifestyle in the early life of a child, from conception till early childhood, in order to reduce risk to various NCDs.
Securing his future
The 1000-day period represents a golden opportunity for you to ensure that your child’s future health, growth, and development are maximised. Proper and adequate nutrition is something that cannot be ignored for both mother and child, both during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Nutrition continues to play a critical role as you move into the complementary feeding phase when your child is around six-months-old, and when he transitions to a fully solid-food diet in his toddler years.
As parents, the power to influence his future health and development is in your hands. Help shape your child’s future into a healthier and more prosperous one with proper nutrition. For more details on getting the right nutrition during pregnancy and the first six months of your baby’s life, turn to the next page. More details on how you can ensure that your child receives the right nutrition up to the 1000-day mark are included in the next section as well.