The 1,000 days between a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s 2nd birthday offer a unique window of opportunity to build healthier and more prosperous futures
Nutrition during pregnancy and in the first years of a child’s life provides the essential building blocks for brain development, healthy growth and a strong immune system. In fact, a growing body of scientific evidence shows that the foundations of a person’s lifelong health—including their predisposition to obesity and certain chronic diseases—are largely set during this 1,000 day window
The first two years of your baby’s life are more important than we know
In the first 1000 days, your baby grows more than the entire remainder of their life. In the first year alone, your baby’s weight triples and height increases by 50%. What’s more, a staggering 80% of their brain and cognitive development is complete by their second birthday, with their brain size tripling from birth to two years; Babies are born with immature immune systems and it takes up to 2 years to strengthen it.
With a pace like that, it is no surprise that the food they eat shapes how your baby grows and develops in the first 2 years. There are changes you can see, and changes that you can’t. But the one thing that is clear, is that your baby needs a whole lot of nutrition during this time, more so than at any other time in their life.
But did you know, that what your baby eats in the first two years, determines your baby’s potential for the rest of their life? The right kinds of food have the power to ensure your baby reaches their full potential when it comes to physical growth, learning capacity and also ensure that your baby isn’t susceptible to illness as a child and as an adult.
If your baby doesn’t get the right kind of nutrition that meets all their requirements, there are very real risks of irreversible damage to their brain development and physical growth.
What does your baby need for this rapid growth and development…
Your baby needs two kinds of nutrients: macro nutrients and micro nutrients.
Macro nutrients are responsible for providing energy and aid physical growth and development. For example, proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Essentially this is development we can see with our eyes.
What you can’t see developing within the baby are the brain & immunity growth and development. These are fueled by the micronutrients which your baby needs & are very important during this phase. Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients. Iron, zinc, vitamin A for example, aid in brain development and immunity.
The green & white revolutions in India during the 60s, 70s & the 80s has been instrumental in delivering high quality macronutrient rich food for a large population of India & health indicators for macronutrients have gone up. But micronutrients still remain an issue wherein India needs a micronutrient revolution to make sure every child is able to meet their potential.
Micronutrients need special attention in the first 2 years because any micronutrient deficiencies during this time could lead to impaired cognitive development and affect immunity. This affects brain growth and immunity and leads to reduced learning capacity later in life and can also make your baby more susceptible to infections throughout life.
Your baby’s milestones are a source of great pride and a sense of achievement. With the right amount of macronutrients, the physical milestones are obvious to the eye. But because you can’t see the consequences of micronutrients deficiency immediately, most people tend to miss out on ensuring that their babies get enough micronutrients.
How do you ensure that your baby gets the right nutrition in this critical stage?
In the first six months, breastmilk is the gold standard & is sufficient to meet your baby’s needs. Once your baby turns six months, breastmilk needs to be supported by other foods.
When starting off on solid foods, your baby can’t take in more than a few spoonfuls of food. This, as you know, is because your baby’s stomach is incredibly small. It is the size of their tiny fist, which is only 20% of the size of an adult’s stomach.
The surprising part, though, is that while their stomach size is so much smaller, they actually need more nutrition than adults to support their incredible growth rate. Babies need 5 times more nutrition than adults at this stage.
So the limited amount of food that the baby eats needs to provide all that the baby requires. While breast milk still continues to provide partial nutrition to your baby, the other foods you give bear the huge responsibility to bridge the gap that breast milk can’t fill.
How are these complementary solid foods doing in meeting your baby’s requirements
Indian diets are majorly grain and plant based, with little to no intake of pulses and green leafy vegetables. These diets are high in macronutrients but are very low in micronutrients, iron, zinc and calcium.
This is a cause for concern because the percentage of these nutrients that need to be met by complementary foods is extremely high. 98% of your baby’s iron and 72% of your baby’s zinc needs should be fulfilled through complementary food but our Indian diets are insufficient to do so.
Gaps in micronutrient delivery is the highest when your baby is moving from exclusive breast milk to complementary feeds, because the needs are going up whereas delivery is going down at the same time.
Couple this with the size of your baby’s stomach, and it becomes next to impossible to meet their needs through regular food. For example, to meet the daily requirement of Iron for a 6-12 month old child, the mother would have to feed 9 bowls of spinach puree!
*% of RDA to be sourced from complementary foods
So how do you manage your baby’s micronutrient needs?
You need to give your baby small quantities of food that are packed with more nutrients than your regular food. Nutrient dense foods or complete foods that are fortified with minerals & vitamins like iron, zinc etc. so that your baby can get all they need in the amount of food that they can actually eat.
Iron plays a very important role in your baby’s brain development and cognition and iron and zinc help in the development of your baby’s immunity
Fortified cereals and foods have been found to be the most effective way of ensuring that there are no micronutrient deficiencies in children.
In addition to fortified/complete foods, you need to ensure diversity of food groups in your baby’s diet by including foods from all food groups on a daily basis for a balanced diet.
Supplements are a solution to tackle the issue, and you can give supplements of various vitamins & minerals after consulting your pediatrician. However, fortified foods are safer and closer to regular food and more effective. Additionally, the palatability of supplements is not very high especially for babies, and leads to very low compliance, thus beating the purpose of supplements, whereas fortified foods become a natural part of the baby’s diet.
Hence you could use fortified food like Atta, Salt etc. readily available in the market to ensure your baby gets the right nutrition for his/her proper development.
In fact, 2 bowls of fortified cereals a day bridge the nutrition gap in your baby’s diet
By ensuring that your couple fortified foods with your baby’s regular diet of homemade foods, you can rest assured that your baby’s nutrition needs are fully met.
Inputs by Manjari Chandra, Consultant Nutrition, Multi-Specialty Centre