How nutrition enhances early childhood development
“My children grew fast, they walked and spoke early, and are doing very well in school,” said Mrs Husseini Mustapha, a mother of two. “They learn very quickly and do a lot of things themselves. Aisha who is four years old recites numbers, alphabets and poems that many of her mates cannot,” she said.
Mrs Mustapha said she is a happy mother because her two kids are smart and healthy. She said she ensured they were exclusively breast fed for six months, and thereafter gave them frequent meals from a variety of food groups to meet their nutritional needs.
Experts have said that nutrition plays a very important role in brain development during the early years of a child. Nutrition in Early Childhood Development (ECD) especially within the first five years of a child ‘s life enables him or her to grow well, live healthy, and also realize their full development potentials in life, the experts said.
They warn that inadequate nutrition has negative implications for early childhood development, and urged mothers to provide exclusive breast feeding, and adequate nutrition, that is a diet that meets the nutrients needs for optimal growth and development, as well as stimulation for their children.
“Good nutrition is not just about strong bodies. It is equally important for strong minds. Certainly a lack of nutritious food can lead to disease and impede a child’s growth. But conditions linked to malnutrition can also cause cognitive delays that affect a child’s ability to learn and even earn a living later in life.
“Health issues related to nutrition can also do lifelong harm. For example diarrhoea can harm fitness, growth and cognitive development, and as a result impede later school performance,” said United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in a book ‘Early Moments Matter for Every Child’.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Early Child Development (ECD) encompasses physical, socio emotional, cognitive and motor developments between 0-8 years of age. The early child period is considered to be the most important developmental phase throughout the lifespan.
“The early years are critical, because this is the period in life when the brain develops most rapidly and has a high capacity for change, and the foundation is laid for health and wellbeing throughout life. Healthy Early Child Development (ECD) strongly influences well-being, obesity/stunting, mental health, heart disease, competence in literacy and numeracy, criminality, and economic participation throughout life.
“What happens to the child in the early years is critical for the child’s developmental trajectory and life course,” said WHO.
Dr Bamidele Omotola, a nutrition specialist with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said that adequate nutrition, early stimulation and caring environments in the first 1000-days’ window are important for brain development and set the life-long foundation for human capital.
Explaining the importance of nutrition on child development, he said in gestation and infancy, the brain is an ‘energy hog’, consuming between 50 and 75 per cent of all the energy absorbed by the body from food, including fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals.
“Inadequate nutrition, during that period affects the structure and functions of the brain in ways that are difficult to offset later,” said Dr Omotola.
“High stress also affects the absorption capacity of other vital
organs, potentially diminishing the effectiveness of nutritional supplements, such as those used to treat children with malnutrition in emergencies,” he added.
Speaking during a media dialogue on early childhood development in Nigeria, organised by UNICEF in Kano, he said smarter interventions should therefore link nutrition with stress reduction, simultaneously improving a child’s nutritional status and brain development.
Dr Iretiola Babaniyi, a retired Chief Consultant Pediatrician and Medical Director at Joyland Medical Centre and Children’s Hospital, Abuja, in an interview with Daily trust Saturday said when children were not well nourished, their immunity weakens and they become prone to many diseases. Malnutrition is a
predisposing factor to high mortality among children.
The Head Dietetics Department at the National Hospital, Abuja, Mrs Sarah Abagi, said zero to two years is a critical time in the life of every child.
She said it is the time for proper brain development and potential for academic performance and achievements, adding that there were key nutrients required to build the brain at that age such as iron, zinc and protein.
Abagi said if a child of that age suffers from malnutrition, it would affect his or her school or work development and performance.
“Once this period is passed, the child’s learning and intellectual capacity is limited, he or she will not be able to do well in school and the child is more likely to drop out of school,” she said.
According to Abagi, the damage between 0 to two years was irreversible while children that were two years and above suffer from a type of malnutrition called Kwashiorkor but could get well when treated.
She said malnutrition in children perpetuates poverty in the family and the country “because that child who is not able to go to school or drops out of school will end up like her parents, with limited achievements and not able to contribute meaningfully to the society. It is a vicious cycle.”
She added that the fact that Nigeria has an estimated 11 million malnourished children if not addressed could portend a bleak future for the country.
Swadchet Sankey, Education Specialist , UNICEF, said early brain stimulation is the foundation of learning and that achieving ECD interventions, early in life set a trajectory for good health and long life, lower cardiovascular, non-communicable diseases and well-being.
“With ECD, not only do children survive, they thrive. Early nutrition programmes can raise adult wages by 5-50%. Children who escape stunting are 33% more likely to escape poverty as adults. Reductions in stunting can increase Gross Domestic Product by 4-11% in Asia and Africa,” Sankey also said.
Nigeria is amongst the top 10 countries contributing to 250 million children under five at risk of not reaching their potential because their development has been stunted by stress, lack of early stimulation and poor nutrition. The effects, she noted, will ultimately impact a country’s growth
Earlier, Geoffery Njoku, Communications Specialist, UNICEF, said the workshop was aimed at orienting media on the situation of Early Childhood Care Development (ECD) and to create advocacy platform for improved media support on it.
Rabiu Musa, communication officer, UNICEF Kano field office added that it was aimed at creating visibility for Early Childhood Care Development (ECD) situation and interventions in Nigeria, share experiences on best practices and challenges of ECD interventions and, jointly with the media, proffer solutions to the challenges.