Children’s health and nutrition is a popular research area. While a significant amount of attention to given to children in later years, UNICEF argues ‘very little’ is concentrated on early years: from six-months to two-years of age.
“It’s at this time, that without the right nutrients, children can have an irreversible impact on their development,” according to Marianne Clark-Hattingh, Deputy Director of UNICEF Brussels.
In the not-for-profit’s 2021 Child Nutrition Report, this age bracket is the point of focus as UNICEF seeks to identify the main barriers preventing caregivers from feeding young children nutritious, safe, and age-appropriate diets, as well as how food system transformation can help remove these barriers to better support caregivers and families.
An important age bracket
The nutrients consumed during the six-months to two-years age bracket is crucial to a person’s overall health, throughout their entire lifetime.
During this one-and-a-half-year period, a child’s brain grows to 75% of its adult size. It is also during this time that more than one million new neural connections are formed every second, one’s height increases by 75%, and body weight quadruples.
Children have ‘extremely high nutrient needs’ during this age bracket, stressed Clark-Hattingh at a recent European Food Forum (EFF) event. And due to children’s small stomach size, they require frequent and diverse meals.
According to UNICEF, the consequences of poor diets and feeding practices in early life are visible in the age distribution of stunting and wasting.
Data from UNICEF, WHO, and the World Bank suggest stunting rapidly increases between six- and 23-months of age.
“Stunting isn’t just about being too short for your age at a particular time,” Clark-Hattingh told delegates. “It also affects your cognitive development later on, and there is evidence that children who are stunted in their early years have a lower IQ, and therefore, ultimately, in terms of economic process and development of a country it also has an impact.”
Hattingh also suggested links between stunting at a young age and obesity ‘later in life’.
Concerning wasting, which UNICEF describes as the ‘most immediate, visible and life-threatening form of malnutrition’, the non-profit estimates 45m children under five-years experienced wasting in 2020, 23m of which are estimated to be under two-years of age.
‘Kids not fed enough of the right foods at the right time’
In UNICEF’s report, titled Fed to fail: The crisis of children’s diets early in life, the charity made eight findings, with perhaps the most pertinent being that children are not fed enough of the right foods at the right time.
Other findings include that children’s diets have seen little or no improvement in the last decade, and that poor diets are not affecting all children equally across and within regions.
“South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are being particularly affected, but there are also disparities which persist between countries and they have not narrowed notably,” said the charity branch's deputy director.
This includes children who are living in rural areas or are from poor families, she continued. “And this has been exacerbated of course by COVID-19 and climate change.”
UNICEF also found that families are struggling to find and afford nutritious food for their children. “We see that highly processed foods are often more available and cheaper,” Clark-Hattingh elaborated.
Further, children’s diets are constrained by social, cultural, and gender barriers, and finally, governments are not enforcing policies and programmes to improve young children’s lives and diets.
Advocating for change
In response to its findings, UNICEF is calling for ‘bolder actions’ and ‘greater accountability’ for children’s diets and for government to uphold children’s rights to healthy and nutritious food, we were told.
Within its list of recommendations, the non-profit has paid particular attention to food system transformation, notably calling on policymakers to increase the availability and affordability of nutritious foods, including fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish, meat and fortified foods, by incentivising their production, distribution and retailing.
UNICEF wants national standards and legislation implemented across the globe that protects young people from unhealthy processed and ultra-processed foods and beverages, as well as harmful marketing practices targeting children and families.
Promoting the use of multiple communication channels, including digital media, to reach caregivers with factual information and advice on young child feeding and increasing the desirability of nutritious and safe foods is also among the charity’s recommendations.
Looking to actions that mobilise the ‘full potential’ of the health system, the charity is calling for the delivery of dietary supplements, home fortificants and fortified complementary foods to young children at risk of micronutrient deficiencies, anaemia, and growth and development failure.
Recommendations for multi-system governments include positioning young children’s right to nutritious and safe diets as a priority in the national development agenda and ensuring coherent policy support and legislation across sectors and systems.
UNICEF is also calling for public accountability for young people’s diets to be strengthened by setting targets and tracking progress through sector-specific monitoring systems and surveys, and for research to be conducted to understand context-specific barriers, enablers and pathways to improve the quality of young children’s diets.