Victoria Quinn, senior vice president of programs at Helen Keller International discusses why a child’s first 1,000 days of life are the most important. This piece was republished from the Huffington Post with permission from the author.
There is a time in a child’s life that has a profound impact on her ability to grow, learn and rise out of poverty. It’s the 1,000 day window beginning with a mother’s pregnancy through to her child’s 2nd birthday. During these critical 1,000 days, ensuring that mothers and children have proper nutrition can have a profound impact not only on the individuals, but also on the long-term health, stability and development of entire communities and nations.
In fact, it’s been demonstrated that nutritional status improves when mothers receive proper nutrition throughout their pregnancies and continue to nourish their babies through breast feeding from birth to two years, while introducing nutritious solid foods at 6 months. Better nutrition is linked to healthier economies and a country’s GDP can increase by at least 2 to 3 percent annually as a result. Investing in better nutrition during this 1,000 day window is a smart investment for the health of children, families, communities and entire countries.
On the other hand, malnutrition equals mal-development.
Leaders from around the world will soon gather at Camp David for the 38th meeting of the Group of Eight (G8). As they come together to address a range of economic, political and security issues, strategies for preventing malnutrition must be high on the agenda. Only when children are well-nourished and growing to achieve their full human potential can we say our development efforts have been successful.
Too often, policy-makers focus on economic indicators or national agricultural production yields to determine how well a nation is faring. We believe that investments in national and economic development should use the growth of children as the best and most accurate yardstick — a human yardstick — to measure success. Indicators of child malnutrition, such as height, reflect much more accurately than gross domestic product whether development progress has truly been achieved in a country. Chronic malnutrition reduces not only the productivity of that specific individual, but also their entire community and country.
In my work at Helen Keller International I see this truth every day. For example, Sanfo Salimata is a mother who lives in the village of Koulwoko in the African country of Burkina Faso. Through Helen Keller International’s Homestead Food Production program, which incorporates Essential Nutrition Actions (cost-effective interventions that are proven to improve health and nutrition outcomes for mothers and children), Sanfo has learned that eating vitamin A-rich vegetables can prevent vitamin A deficiency (VAD) and night blindness which she experienced during her first pregnancy. In fact, globally, VAD is the number one cause of childhood blindness and also impacts the proper functioning of the immune system. It is estimated that 670,000 children will die from VAD, and 350,000 will go blind – every year.
HKI also introduced Sanfo to the orange-fleshed variety of sweet potatoes which are rich in vitamin A. During her second pregnancy, she ate these potatoes whenever she could. She had more energy, less hunger and no night blindness. She also found that eating the orange-fleshed sweet potatoes made her newborn baby boy healthy and, in her opinion, more beautiful. Sanfo learned the importance of giving her baby only breast milk during the first six months of his life, and, when appropriate at six months, to feed him micronutrient-rich complementary foods while continuing to breastfeed.
Sanfo’s commitment to proper nutrition before and after the birth of her baby is helping give him the best possible start for a healthy and productive life. He now has the proper foundation to make the most of his educational and vocational opportunities that will in turn allow him to contribute positively to his family, his community and his country.
Sanfo has done everything in her power to help her child survive and thrive, and we owe it to her — and the countless other mothers like her — to do the same. Improving nutrition during the critical 1,000 day window is one of the best investments we can make to help people live healthier, more productive lives. In fact, a prestigious group of economists at the Copenhagen Consensus Centre estimated that for every $1 invested in nutrition, as much as $138 is generated in better health and increased productivity.
Investments now can save more than one million lives each year, improve an individual’s educational achievement and earning potential, and reduce the risk for developing various noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes and other chronic conditions later in life. But, in order for these results to be realized, funding for nutrition must be prioritized now.
As G8 leaders meet next week, we call on them stand up for nutrition and invest in these critical 1,000 days. It is an investment bound to pay dividends in the social and economic prosperity of entire nations.
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