Adequate nutrition during infancy and early childhood is essential in ensuring the health and development of children to their full potential.
It’s partly for this reason that the World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for at least the first six months for infants. In this period, an infant receives only breast milk from its mother or a wet nurse or expressed breast milk, and no other liquids or foods, with the exception of oral rehydration solution, drops or syrups consisting of vitamins, minerals supplements or medicines.
Dr Daniel Gahungu, a general practitioner at Polyclinic de l’Etoile in Kigali, says mothers who happen to have low capacity to produce enough breast milk for their new born babies should always drink a lot of water and also seek medical help to stimulate breast milk production.
“For infants to survive, grow and develop properly they require the right proportion of nutrients. These nutrients can only be found in the breast milk of the mother. Breast milk is rich in nutrients and antibodies, and they are readily available with the right quantities of fat, sugar, water and protein.” he adds.
Dr Gahungu says a child’s digestive system is able to process certain foods at different stages as it grows, urging parents to be objective when feeding their children.
“First, you want the meal your child is eating to be as healthy and nutritious as possible. Secondly, you want to have a child that will eventually eat when hungry and stop when satisfied, as well as being able to eat a variety of foods – preferably about 10 types of different vegetables and fruits,” he explains.
According to Dr Raymond Awazi of La Croixdu Sud Hospital in Kigali, poor feeding in young children can affect their thinking capacity as they grow up.
“When a child does not get proper feeding much as they were well breastfed, they are likely to be dull in class in later years as a result of poor brain growth,” he says.
“There is evidence that adults who were malnourished in early childhood have impaired intellectual performance. They may also have reduced capacity for physical work,” Dr Awazi adds.
Unfortunately today, working class mothers are leaving their children at onlythree months to go back to work.
Dr Awazi advises that if such a child is fed appropriately, it will reduce cases of any danger in the child’s growth.
“Formula milk is always recommended for infants at three months and light vegetables can be introduced for those at 31/2 months. Fruits and natural juice can be given to a child at 4 months, as well as yoghurt and yellow egg to one with 5 months.
“Porridge, rice, irish potatoes and matooke can be introduced to a child at 6 months and boiled fish and minced meat may be introduced to the child’s diet at 7 and 8 months,” he explains.
Dr Gahungu says that when a child is fed using the right procedure and on nutritious foods, this stimulates the human growth hormone (HGH) which enables the bones, muscles and other tissues to grow.
He notes that parents who are not keen on proper diet for their infants expose them (children) to a number of problems as the child grows.
“Poor nutrition increases the risk of illness due to low immunity that is a result of poor feeding and it is directly or indirectly the reason why a child will always fall sick as its white blood cell count is not enough to fight off infections,” he says.
Early nutritional deficits are also linked to long-term impairment in growth and health.
Dr Gahungu further says malnutrition during the first two years of life causes stunting.
“If women were malnourished as children, their reproductive capacity is affected. Their infants may have lower birth weight and also have more complicated deliveries,” he adds.
Studies show that when many children in a population are malnourished, it has implications for national development.