Why Nutrition Counts in Early Childhood Development

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The place of nutrition cannot be over emphasised or down played in the development and well-being of a child within his/her pre-school days. Little wonder, experts have continued to harp on the fact that it must start form conception. With this in mind, achieving other factors in line with nurturing care will have a smooth sail. Kuni Tyessi writes

Experts have continued to reiterate that early childhood period of life encompasses several distinct phases which include from conception to birth. This includes pre-natal care, attended births, registration and post-natal care. It is expected that from birth to three years of a child’s existence which includes the first 1,000 days, parent education, early stimulation and nutrition intervention, as well as home-based care and crèches are required.

It must be stated that after birth, starting to breastfeed within the first hour and breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months provides babies with the best nutrition possible. It also establishes a bond between mother and child at a critical moment and it is a time when the right nourishment in its appropriate measure is given to the child.
From three-five years or six as the case may be, parent education and pre-school are expected to take place while transition to primary school is expected to occur between the ages of six-eight.

Scientific discoveries in neuroscience have improved man’s understanding of how a baby’s brain develops. One of the most important discovery is that “the brain is built by genes, experience and environment, with a combination of nature and nurture.”
This invariably means that a child’s brain is built and not born, with the process starting well before birth and being influenced by a pregnant woman’s health, nutrition and environment. After birth, the baby’s brain continues to develop.

The above forms the background for the importance of nutrition in early child development whose genesis at conception seems to be stale news and yet several Nigerians do not seem to know or understand its importance in the overall growth and development of a child. This can be seen in the non disapperaence of stunting, wasting and malnutrition in the lives of many children, including children of the educated and rich parents who are expected to know about the vogue of nutrition in attaining early child development.
Therefore, development is an outcome and continuous process of acquiring skills and abilities during the aforementioned ages across the domains which include cognitive, language, physical, social and emotional development.

‎In the recently released results of the fifth Multiple Indicators Cluster Survey (MICS5), conducted in 2016 and 2017, which was done by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and other organisations, it was revealed that Nigeria made significant improvements in some areas while others, which include the case of inadequate nutrition remained unchanged or have worsened since 2011 by not keeping pace with population growth when the last survey was conducted.

The report said: “For example, according to the results, the infant mortality rate has dropped to 70 per 1,000 live births from 97 in 2011. Equally, deaths among children under age five have dropped to 120 per 1,000 live births from 158 in 2011.
“However, malnutrition among children under age five has worsened nationwide with the highest concerns in northern states. Child wasting (children who are too thin for their age) increased from 24.2 per cent to 31.5 per cent, while child stunting (children who are too short for their age) increased from 34.8 per cent to 43.6 per cent.”

Children who suffer from child wasting have a weakened immunity and are at increased risk of long-term developmental delays. For stunting, about 155 million children younger that five years are affected, says UNICEF. And it is associated with cognitive deficits that impact children’s ability to learn in school and earn income as adults.

Despite wide acceptance of various guidelines as a result of research, many children do not get the nutrition they need at the time they need it. Globally, only about 40 per cent of the world’s infants under six months old, or two out of five are breastfed exclusively and only half of the children aged six-23 months are fed frequently enough and about one third are fed a minimally diverse diet.

In a recent training which was organised for health and education journalists by UNICEF in Kano with the theme ‘For Every Nigerian Child, Early Years Matter’, UNICEF’s Nutrition Specialist, Dr. Bamidele Omotola, who spoke on the topic ‘Nutrition in Early Childhood Development’ emphasised the need to reduce malnutrition which he said is essential in Nigeria’s attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
He said the reduction of malnutrition will not only reduce poverty, which seems to be where the concentration of many lies, but will improve the issue of welfare, investment and improved nutrition.

“Investment in nutrition matters. In terms of schooling, early nutrition programmes can increase school completion by one year. In terms of earnings, early nutrition programmes can raise adult wages by five-50 per cent. For poverty, children who escape stunting are 33 per cent more likely to escape poverty as adults and for the economy, reductions in stunting can increase GDP by four-11 per cent in Asia and Africa.
“Window of opportunity is first 1,000 days. Nutrition is not just a welfare issue, human rights issue or is it primarily a food or a consumption issue alone. Nutrition is an investment issue and improved nutrition is one of the drivers for economic growth.”

He said in gestation and infancy, the brain is an energy hog which consumes between 50-75 per cent of all the energy absorbed by the body from food, including fats, protein, vitamins and minerals. With this, inadequate nutrition during that period affects the structure and functions of the brain in ways that are difficult to offset in latter years.
Also, 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 and stress reduction, simultaneously improving a child’s nutritional status and brain development.

Little wonder, UNICEF has continued to make unending and countless calls to nations, especially developing nations which include Nigeria on the need for investment in nutrition for early childhood development. In its recent publication titled ‘Early Moments Matter for Every Child’, the United Nations organisation states that “increasing the overall share of budgetary allocations for early childhood development programming is a critical step governments can and should make.”

UNICEF‎ stated that “the financial case for investing in a child’s early moments is strong and the rate of return can be about 13.7 per cent. The benefits are reaped in better health and education outcomes, lower crime and higher individual earnings.
The organisation encourages the Nigerian government to invest urgently in services that give young children, especially the most deprived the best start in life. This can be done with an overall increase in budgetary allocations for early childhood development programming. For example this can include allocating 10 per cent of all national education budgets to pre-primary education as this will greatly expand the number of children with access to early learning opportunities which can improve their educational attainment.

Innovative financing can also help the three tiers of government, especially the local governments to reach more children ‎with more effective programming. Approaches can include ear-marking taxes to pay for early childhood development services or instituting ‘payment by results’ frameworks that tie investment to outcomes.

‎The government can make family-friendly early childhood development polices a national priority and a private sector imperative. UNICEF says with this, policies and programmes as well as other supports that enable parents and care-givers to provide the best start in life for their children will pay off for a better equipped workforce.

The government, apart from collating data on essential indicators of early childhood development and the tracking of its progress can also provide dedicated leadership for early childhood development programmes and coordinate efforts more effectively across sectors, as well as drive demand for quality early childhood development services.

The words and thoughts of the Director-General, World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus comes to mind. He said “healthy early childhood development is the right of every child. It starts with comprehensive support to mothers during pregnancy, childbirth and in the first months of a child’s life.

“Support at these early stages is essential not only to help children survive, but also to help them strive. As children grow, essential healthcare including immunisations, adequate nutrition and support for responsive caregiving with opportunities for early learning can build a solid foundation. It can protect them from illnesses.”