Pregnancy, birth and infancy – What do our little ones need?

Motherhood is a memorable experience in any woman’s life. Right from pregnancy to delivery followed by growing up the baby is sure a roller-coaster ride for any one – be it a new or an experienced Mom.

So, what do our little ones need during the entire process??? They need love, care and proper nutrition. Yes…. They need proper nutrition.

Nutrition during pregnancy and early childhood plays an important role in a child’s health and development. It is a known fact that undernutrition during pregnancy results in complications during delivery. It also results in low birth weight, pre-maturity and low nutrient stores in infants. Long-term effects of malnutrition on the child are weakened immune system, lesser height, slower growth, impaired mental development, metabolic syndrome and related disorders.

Latest research focuses on the significance of nutrition during preconception period (3 months before conception) suggesting maternal nutrition influences child’s health even before pregnancy.

Once the baby is born, what do we need to do? Well, there are standard practices, guidelines or recommendations that everyone should follow. For instance,

WHO and UNICEF recommends:
• early initiation of breastfeeding within 1 hour of birth;
• exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life; and
• introduction of nutritionally-adequate and safe complementary (solid) foods at 6 months together with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond.

Why exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life?
Breast milk provides all the nutrients that an infant need for the first 6 months of life. It has numerous benefits both for the mom and the infant. It protects the baby against infections and reduces the risk of mortality. Children who are breast fed as babies have higher intelligence levels, better school attendance and less likely to be overweight and obese. Breast feeding is associated with higher income in adult life and reduces the risk of ovarian and breast cancer in women (1).

What does research say?

Results of a meta-analysis showed that breastfeeding is a significant protective factor against obesity in children (2).
Results of a cross-sectional study showed that breast milk constituents promote healthy neural growth and white matter development (3).

This space is not enough to quote all the innumerable research conducted which proves the benefits of breast feeding on the little babies.

Why complementary foods with continued breastfeeding from 6 months?

An infant’s energy and nutrient requirements are greater than what breast milk could provide at the age of 6 months. Hence, WHO recommends that infants start receiving nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods at 6 months of age in addition to breast milk. Breast feeding should still be continued along with complementary foods until the babies naturally wean themselves. Traditionally, single grain infant cereal (like rice) is the first solid food that is given to the babies. While the market is flooded with baby foods, it is important to choose a good one that is safe for the baby and easily digestible too. Step by step and timely introduction of complementary foods is the key to success.

According to WHO,

Infant and young child feeding is a key area to improve child survival and promote healthy growth and development. The first 2 years of a child’s life are particularly important, as optimal nutrition during this period lowers morbidity and mortality, reduces the risk of chronic disease, and fosters better development overall.

Only few children receive nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods; in many countries less than a fourth of infants 6–23 months of age meet the criteria of dietary diversity and feeding frequency that are appropriate for their age.

Did you know?

Undernutrition is associated with 45% of child deaths.

Globally in 2016, 155 million children under 5 were estimated to be stunted (too short for age), 52 million were estimated to be wasted (too thin for height), and 41 million were overweight or obese.

Over 820 000 children’s lives could be saved every year among children under 5 years, if all children 0–23 months were optimally breastfed.

While your brains are loaded with facts about breast feeding and infancy, let’s get into the details of it separately in the coming weeks…. Happy parenting till then….

– Dr. Triveni Chandraprakasam

References for further reading:
1. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/infant-and-young-child-feeding
2. https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2458-14-1267
3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811913005922