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The significance of early childhood nutrition

Published Jul 25, 2022

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An early childhood diet that meets the child's nutritional needs not only promotes growth and development to the fullest extent possible, but it can also establish and reinforce good eating habits that improve overall health and well-being and may last into later childhood and beyond.

Children require micronutrients to help their bodies grow and develop, but most crucially, they need them to support the development of their minds.

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Dr Lelo Latakgomo, the founder and lead physician at Dr Concierge, a medical clinic in Sandton, says nutrition issues frequently arise when a child is switching from breast- or formula-feeding to a supplementary diet.

Dr Lelo Latakgomo, family physician. Picture: Supplied

Malnutrition problems include both undernutrition and overnutrition, as well as “hidden hunger”, where children appear to be strong but are actually deficient in micronutrients. A developing child is especially affected by this since the body is either not receiving enough or getting too much.

She says in order to meet the growing nutritional needs of children at six months, complementary foods must be introduced in a timely, safe and sufficient manner while breastfeeding is continued.

To prevent future childhood malnutrition and counteract development delay during the supplemental feeding period, it is crucial to provide a nourishing diet.

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“It's a known fact that there’s a link to nutrition and cognitive development and in the worst case scenario some do not even recover,” said Latakgomo. “It’s feared that how children's brains grow cognitively could have an impact on them as adults.”

A malnourished child finds it challenging to focus and lacks the desire to explore. When children lack the energy to play or the micronutrients necessary for growth, their brains are compromised and they experience delayed milestones. Children learn via exploration and play.

Poor early childhood diets can also result in vitamin and nutritional deficiencies, such as a vitamin A deficiency, which lowers children’s resistance to infection.

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A window of opportunity exists during the supplemental feeding period (6–24 months) for reducing stunting, wasting, overweight, and obesity as well as for enhancing long-term development and health, asserts Latakgomo.

It is advised that there should be no added sugar, a diet that is completely balanced and takes into account the changing nutrient requirements for healthy growth and development that will help the child form eating habits that will help them lead a healthy adult life.

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