Nutrition in the first year of life – the cornerstone to a child’s future

Just as with all other expectant mothers, I was excited when I confirmed that I was carrying life inside me. After the initial excitement waned, I started making plans for my precious baby. They included the clothes, the hospital, name of the baby (It had to be unique my baby would not share a name with anyone), where she would sleep and so on.

In all my preparations, I never considered one important aspect of raising the baby and that was its nutrition. Well to me that was a non-issue because I was going to breastfeed her until she got to three months and then I would start weaning her on porridge and some formula. She would then start eating anything and everything mashed and shortly after join other family members in having regular meals. That is how most babies around me are raised. Exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months was never in my plans, largely because I had never heard of it in the first place.

Exclusive Breastfeeding

I was introduced to the concept of exclusive breastfeeding when I was added to an online pregnancy support group and that is when I came to learn about its importance to a developing baby. This meant a drastic change of the plans I had for my baby’s nutrition and I stuck to my guns despite the pressure from my mother and sisters to start weaning the baby after three months. This was because I did not have much milk and instead of just giving up I also made some changes to my diet to ensure that I had more milk to feed my daughter.

Breastfeeding has no equal: it gives children the best start, providing all the nutrients and energy needed for the first 6 months, up to half of nutritional needs from 6 – 12 months, and up to one-third of nutritional needs from 12 – 24 months. This is significant yet often forgotten.  After the first 6 months, children need additional nutrition and this is when complementary feeding (or weaning as many know it) is started and ensuring that it is both appropriate and adequate is critical.

Sadly, I am not the only one, as so many women are unaware of the value of breast milk for their children that you are supposed to exclusively breastfeed your baby for six months before you introduce any other types of foods. Those who do know about it may fail to do it because they are concerned about their looks and think breastfeeding may negatively affect their looks.

There are those who may have to stop because they have to go back to their demanding careers. Some women just choose to stop because it is too hard and the baby is draining them. Introducing the baby to solid foods helps to take some of the pressure from the mother. In some instances, the mother may not have enough milk because she may be stressed or may not have enough food or the right kinds of foods to eat.

While some women are still in the dark about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding, it is not all doom and gloom in the infancy world. At the moment, Kenya can be very proud of the fact that collaboration and education have enabled an increase in breastfeeding among Kenyan mothers.

Numerically speaking, 61% of Kenyan women now breastfeed their babies exclusively for the first 6 months and that is a significant number worth celebrating. Due to the above efforts, 62% of mothers began breastfeeding within the first hour of birth which is also worth celebrating.

To read more about the bounty of benefits of breastfeeding click here   

Nutrition Problems in Infants

Nutrition problems in babies are not only limited to the first six months of their development, as most mothers are also not providing the correct nutrients for their babies when they start them on solids.

According to Bright4Africa Kenya, good nutrition is more than food to survive – it is a variety of the right vitamins and minerals (micronutrients), given when the body needs them, in the amounts the body needs them, to enable our children to thrive. After all, every mother wants her child to grow to reach their full potential later in life! This is why the Kenyan government has mandated that all maize meal and wheat flour is fortified with a range of vitamins and minerals to ensure that we all, but most especially the children, get the nutrition we need for a brighter future, a future free from malnutrition.

Here is the problem in Kenya – only 22% of older infants aged 6 – 23 months consume the minimum acceptable diet (a measure of whether a 6-23-month-old eats the minimum meal frequency and minimum dietary diversity). That is a diet that just meets all the growing child’s vital nutrient needs. Poor nutrition in the critical early years robs millions of children of a bright future by damaging intellectual performance, work capacity, pregnancy outcomes and overall health. This is a tragedy!

Although still a key contributor to nutrition, breast milk alone is no longer sufficient for babies beyond 6 months. Why? This is a time of high nutrient need to support rapid growth when every centimeter of available space in an infant’s small stomach should be maximised with vital nutrients.

Most mothers go about weaning their children in a haphazard, unintentional manner and this often leads to unseen but important problems for the babies – their growth and development is hampered. Statistics show that it is often at the time of the introduction of complementary foods at 6 months that nutrition problems begin, so here’s a guide on how to do it right.


10 Guidelines to Complementary Feeding (to complement breast milk, not replace it)

1. Starting in the 6th month, your baby needs meat, chicken, fish or egg every day, or as often as possible. Animal foods are a better source of many minerals, vitamins, and fats than plant-based foods, and are the only foods that contain enough iron, zinc, calcium, and riboflavin to supply what the infant needs for rapid growth. Yet currently, over 50% of babies between 6 and 12 months in Eastern and Southern Africa do not consume any animal source foods.

2. When complementary foods are started at 6 months, give your baby dark-green leafy vegetables and orange vegetables and fruit every day, a key source of many vitamins, especially the essential vitamin A. Vitamin A plays an important role in eyesight and in the functioning of the immune system and skin cells. Some good choices are spinach, broccoli, butternut, carrots, orange fleshed sweet potatoes and mangoes.

3. At 6 months, small amounts of complementary foods that are pureed, mashed or semi-solid, should be given to the baby while continuing to breastfeed.

4. From 6 months gradually increase the amount of food, a number of feeds and variety of foods:

a. By 8 months most babies can also eat ‘finger foods’ (snacks they can manage on their own but make sure they are good sources of nutrition such as vegetable sticks or cut fruit rather than biscuits and chips).
b. By 12 months (1 year), most children can eat the same types of foods as the rest of the family (keeping in mind the need for nutrient-dense foods, such as animal including dairy products and eggs or vegetables, rather than foods that fill but give little nutrition, such as maize porridge).

5. When you start adding foods in addition to breastmilk at 6 months, start spoon feeding with thick foods and gradually increase to normal consistency.

6. From 6 months it is important to feed the child slowly and patiently and to encourage, rather than force.

7. Shun tea, coffee and sugary drinks and high-sugar, high-fat, salty snacks.

8. It is critical with the introduction of complementary foods at 6 months to provide adequate fat. That is fat which contains what is called DHA, the essential fatty acid that plays an important role in growth and development and the absorption of vital fat-soluble vitamins. The best sources are breast milk and fish.

9. From 6 months, while a varied diet of fresh homemade nutritious food is always the first option, fortified complementary foods or vitamin-mineral supplements may be necessary.  Globally it is recognized that foods with added vitamins and minerals, or supplements, have a role to play in ensuring that children get the nutrition they need, especially in countries where the commonly available local foods are insufficient to meet their vitamin and mineral needs.

10. As you start to feed your baby, your hands should be washed with soap and clean water before preparing or eating food. Inadequate sanitation, unsafe water, and poor hygiene practices increase exposure to infectious diseases, especially diarrhea, a killer of young children in many countries may end up affecting your child despite your good intentions of feeding them the right way.

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