Children grow rapidly in infancy and early childhood. To support proper growth and development, they must have adequate energy and nutrients. This is a concern for most mums, especially if their child has poor dietary variety and/or poor eating habits, e.g. picky eating, as the risk of underweight and poor growth increases.
Left unrectified, under-nutrition and/or stunting can directly affect a child’s cognitive and motor development. This hinders the child’s learning process as he has less energy and interest in learning, resulting in poorer academic performance.
It is also associated with behavioural abnormalities, and may impede proper immune function development.
Monitor your child’s growth
Parents should not skip regular check-up sessions with their child’s paediatrician. Make it a point to monitor your child’s growth regularly (e.g. once a week) in between scheduled appointments.
Measure and record your child’s weight and height-for-age using a bathroom scale and a measuring tape or wall height chart. If his weight/ height does not maintain an appropriate growth pattern and/or he has little to no weight gain over a period of 2-3 months, this indicates a potential problem such as poor growth. A more in-depth evaluation with a qualified healthcare professional is needed.
Proper nutrition is key
Promote your child’s healthy growth and prevent poor growth and/or stunting by inculcating healthy, balanced eating habits from young. This will ensure he receives complete nutrition for growth and becomes accustomed to healthy nutritional choices.
Here are some basic nutrient requirements and why they’re important:
Calories: Carbohydrate and fats should be his main source of energy for proper growth and development. Offer healthy food choices that are energy- and nutrient-dense from all food groups at every meal such as sweet potatoes, corn, fruits, milk, eggs, etc. Avoid empty calories such as carbonated drinks or candies.
Protein: It’s the main building block for new tissues, muscles, and antibodies to help fight infections. Give your child two servings of milk, yogurt, or cheese, and one or two servings of lean meat, poultry, fish, egg, tofu or tempeh daily to get enough protein.
Other important nutrients for growth: When a child fails to maintain adequate weight gain, do your best to make up for it by ensuring he receives sufficient vitamins and minerals to catch-up on his growth. Insufficient intake will only exacerbate the situation and definitely lead to a less than ideal catch-up growth. Here are some of the important vitamins and minerals:
- Zinc. Necessary for cells to grow and multiply properly, it is needed during rapid growth phases. It also helps in building protein and supporting a healthy immune system. Studies show that having sufficient zinc is important for catch-up growth and supplementation may be needed but do check with your doctor first before doing so.
- Iron. A crucial mineral for carrying oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body and a vital component of the brain tissue. Deficiencies may lead to slower-than-normal nerve impulses and/or permanent damage to a child’s brain, especially if it happens during his first two years of life. Do consult your doctor before opting for iron supplements.
- Vitamin A. For proper vision development, necessary in visual-cognitive learning. A local study, South East Asian Nutrition Surveys (SEANUTS), found that 1 in 25 children were vitamin A deficient.
- Calcium & vitamin D. For strong bones, teeth and good oral health. Deficiencies may cause rickets, muscle weakness and/ or delayed motor development. The SEANUTS survey found that vitamin D deficiency was high and affected nearly 1 in 2 children. To maximise catch-up growth, include food rich in, or fortified with, calcium and vitamin D such as milk, in his diet.
Focus on wholesome nutrition
Parents should take the holistic approach towards nutrition and provide their child with a variety of nutrient-rich foods from early life to support the balanced and wholesome development of his cognitive and physical growth. All nutrients are important, so don’t focus too much on one specific nutrient.
As parents, the onus is on you to look into the nutritional needs of your child. Avoid being overly reliant on others, e.g. caretakers, house-helpers or grandparents. Be more proactive in monitoring your child’s growth and development. Encourage him to be more physically active by including physical activities as part of regular family activities.
An educational collaboration with Nutrition Society of Malaysia.