In order to accomplish optimal growth and development, children require adequate nutrition. This must begin during pregnancy, through the mother’s proper diet. A series of deficits, excesses or any sort of imbalance in a child’s nutrition has a vast incidence in their development and welfare; that is why this component cannot be ignored in any intervention during this stage.
Although hyper nutrition or excess in nutrients may also cause health disorders, malnutrition (a nutritional deficit) is associated with poverty in all of its different levels. This indicator is measured by calculating body weight in relation to chronological age.
Micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) deficiencies represent a serious issue in the region. 50% of children (mostly under 2 years old) in Latin America suffer anemia due to an iron difficiency, which significantly increases the risk of high prevalence in stunting and directly affects cognitive and emotional development of the child. Therefore it is essential to reduce malnutrition in children between age 0 and 3 in order to ensure adequate brain development, especially in poor families.
According to UNICEF, children born into poor families, indigenous communities and/or rural areas present the worst growth deficits (stunting), which is also an indicator of chronic malnutrition. In Latin America this growth deficit is 3 to 6 times higher among children who are underweight. It is worth noting that research on this subject shows that the main cause of malnutrition is not only a lack of food, but a combination of factors such as poor maternal health, inadequate care, poor infant feeding practices, lack of water and inadequate sanitation (UNICEF, 2008).
A micronutrient of great importance in the development of congenital malformations of the central nervous system, responsible for a high percentage of neonatal mortality is folic acid (ONU – CEPAL, 2008). The use of folic acid during a woman’s fertile period helps prevent birth defects such as bifida spine and other neural tube defects. However, studies that analyze the proper use of folic acid in the region are inexistent.
Iodine deficiency has decreased greatly in the region. Iodized salt has contributed to diminish these levels of deficiency. However, there are countries like Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, where only 67% and 18% (respectively) consume iodized salt. International standards establish that at least 90% of the population should consume iodized salt (ONU-CEPAL,2008).
In conclusion, a pertinent comprehensive care during early childhood must include a food program, at a local and national level, in order to ensure the fight against malnutrition becomes a priority for every government. This means its inclusion on political agendas, involving a joint effort from different sectors of the community and an especially effective program for at risk communities.
LOW BIRTH WEIGHT
Low birth weight is considered one of the main indicators to assess child development and represents one of the main causal factors of other diseases and health problems in the first year of life, which can lead to irreversible complications in later years if not treated promptly. Among the factors that directly affect fetal nutrition are: health conditions during pregnancy (diabetes, hypertension, anemia, age, etc.), poor or inadequate prenatal care, maternal history, poor nutrition during pregnancy, smoking / alcoholism, among others (UNICEF, 2008).
Scientific research has shown that children with low birth weight are at increased risk of dying in the first months of life, or suffering chronic malnutrition or stunting in early childhood. Consequently, children with nutritional problems in early childhood are negatively affected in academic performance at school due to alterations in cognitive and psychomotor development, and in adulthood, have a higher chance of suffering from heart problems or diabetes.
Breastfeeding plays a key role in providing children the necessary nutrients for their development during the first months of life, and is associated with reduced odds of developing post natal growth deficit reduction. Breastfeeding ensures both proper nutrition and healthy child development, as a result of the attachment that is created between mother and child as part of the breastfeeding process.
Exclusively breastfeeding during the first six months of life is essential for mother and child. Maternal milk is a child’s best source of nutrition, also having a positive impact on a psych emotional level. Breast milk has an adequate nutritional balance for a child’s neurological and physical development and it also contributes to strengthening the immune system. Studies have shown that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months complements the action of vaccines for protection against infectious diseases (DOREA J.G., 2009). Likewise, the act of breastfeeding creates a special relationship between mother and infant, which contributes to better psychosocial development of the child.
Moreover, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life has been proven to avoid up to 13% of deaths in children under age five in developing countries and when complemented with proper and timely feedings, an additional 6% of deaths can be reduced (JONES G., 2003). According to the World Health Organization (WHO) diseases such as neonatal sepsis, diarrhea, pneumonia, measles and malaria account for over 50% of the causes of mortality in children under age five in the region (WHO, 2001).
CONSECUENCES OF MALNUTRITION
Growth stunt, emaciation (extreme weight loss) and weakness are three indicators of chronic malnutrition. Malnutrition has been estimated as the underlying cause of almost half of all child deaths worldwide. Besides having a devastating impact in terms of infant mortality, nutritional deficiencies, especially for children under age three, malnutrition has long-term detrimental effects on cognitive development. It is essential to reduce malnutrition, especially in children between 0 and 3 years old to ensure proper brain development. Falling prey to malnutrition during this period of life can have irreversible consequences.
Among the consequences of poor nutrition are the following: i) impaired physical and cognitive development; ii) poor school performance; iii) low immune system response; iv) and being more likely to die from common childhood illnesses such as diarrhea and respiratory infections, all of which contributes to chronic diseases. “Survivors” of chronic malnutrition, fall into vicious cycles or recurrent disease, irreversible growth deficiency, and their inability to achieve their full potential.
“ If a child is or is not well-fed during the first years of life can have a profound impact on his or her health, their ability to learn, communicate, think analytically, socialize effectively and adapt to new environments and people. A complete and good nutrition is the first line of defense against numerous childhood diseases that can leave lifelong scars on a child’s life. When there is not enough food, the body has to make a decision about how to invest the limited amount of available food nutrients. First comes survival, then growth. As for nutrition, the body seems to rank learning last” (SAGAN – DRUYAN, OAS).