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Maternal and Child Nutrition: Overview


Persistent high food prices and the continuing global economic crisis have led to an increase in hunger and malnutrition. Children, particularly those younger than 2, are at special risk of hunger. The consequences of malnutrition during these early years of life are long-term and irreversible.

The 1,000-day period between pregnancy and a child's second birthday is a unique opportunity to shape a healthier, more prosperous future for children. Proper nutrition during this time has a profound and lasting impact on a child’s growth, learning, and eventual economic productivity. Mitigating or overcoming malnutrition in young girls can break the cycle so that they enjoy better health and grow into women who have healthier babies.

Malnutrition is such a critical issue that three of the eight U.N. Millennium Development Goals depend upon improving nutrition—eradicating hunger, improving maternal health, and reducing child mortality.

In January 2008, the British medical journal The Lancet published a five-part series on nutrition, calling it "a desperately neglected aspect of maternal, newborn and child health ... [that] has slipped through the gap." Large and growing evidence shows that solutions to improve nutrition in the 1,000- day window are readily available, affordable, and cost-effective.

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Nutrition, the Critical Role of Women, and the 1,000-Day Window

In nearly all cultures, women bear the major responsibility for their families' nutrition. However, they are often undernourished due to social, economic, and biological stressors. When a woman's position in society is improved, her overall nutrition also improves.

It is important to link programs that aim to prevent malnutrition with those that empower women and improve their lives. Women in developing countries have responsibility not only for food production and preparation but also for raising families. Improving women’s nutrition during pregnancy can help safeguard their health and ensure that their children get the best possible start in life.

Where there is hunger and poverty, there is almost always poor access to maternal and child health care. A growing body of scientific evidence shows that improving nutrition during this period is one of the best investments we can make to achieve lasting progress against global poverty and hunger.

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What is Undernutrition?

Undernutrition is a serious condition in which the body does not get the nutrients it needs to sustain healthy growth and development. It arises when there is inadequate consumption, poor absorption, or an excessive loss of nutrients. Undernutrition is a form of malnutrition; sometimes the two terms are used interchangeably.

Many factors cause undernutrition:

  • Not enough food and not enough diverse, nutritious food.
  • Poor maternal care and childcare practices due to a lack of knowledge about healthy diets and infant care on the part of mothers and other caregivers in the family.
  • Lack of health services, clean water, and sanitation.

In countries where gender inequality is high, there can be high rates of undernutrition as female members of a household will "eat least and last." Fundamentally, poverty is at the root of undernutrition. Very poor people are generally unable to afford the foods, education, or health care they need to nourish themselves or their children.

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Child Malnutrition and Stunting

According to The Lancet, undernutrition in its many forms causes 45 percent of child deaths each year, amounting to 3.1 million children. Malnutrition also causes stunting in at least 165 million children under age 5, a life-long condition that affects a child's ability to grow, learn, and rise out of poverty. For children under age 2, malnutrition can weaken the immune system, making them more susceptible to dying from common illnesses such as pneumonia, diarrhea, and malaria.

Other findings:

  • Maternal iron deficiency is associated with low birth weight babies.
  • Stunting prevalence is slowly decreasing globally, but not in some areas of Latin America, Africa, and South Asia.
  • Addressing the underlying causes of malnutrition in agriculture, health, education and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programs has enormous potential to enhance the scale of direct nutrition interventions.

Sources: www.thousanddays.org and http://download.thelancet.com/flatcontentassets/pdfs/ nutrition-eng.pdf

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What Can Be Done?

Direct nutrition interventions can be simple solutions delivered to children at risk and their families. These are well-known and supported by nutrition experts. They include supplementation with micronutrients such as zinc and vitamin A; iodizing salt; promoting healthy behaviors such as exclusive breast-feeding for six months; hand washing and improved sanitation; and better complementary feeding practices. Fortification, or the process of adding vitamins and minerals to food, is another inexpensive intervention.

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Governments are Scaling Up Nutrition

The United States has shown considerable leadership in its efforts to reduce global hunger. Other bilateral donors, multilateral development banks, and international organizations are stepping up as well. In this country, we have formed the 1,000 Days Partnership to support the global Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement. 1,000 Days promotes targeted action and investments in nutrition to break the cycle of poverty. SUN brings together more than 100 governments and organizations committed to working together to fight hunger and malnutrition.

For more information, see "Linking Nutrition and Health: Progress and Opportunities" and "Improving Food Aid to Improve Nutrition."

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