10 Feb The first 1,000 days of life and why they matter
Most people have heard about how the environment, maternal health, eating habits and diet can influence the health of children even before they are born.
The truth is that the period just before conception or pregnancy, right through to the second birthday, is a critical and unique window of opportunity, where illness and poor nutrition can completely undermine the future of any child. This is the most important period for growth and brain development, and it is the best time for obesity prevention and other chronic diseases. (1)
As parents, we want to prepare our children for a successful, healthy and happy life, what else would you want for them? So, you don’t need to wait until birth before you invest in your child’s future. You can start NOW.
Impact of maternal and paternal nutrition before conception
Despite the efforts and all the research done in the field of maternal and paternal nutrition, there’s still a lot of misinformation for parents and would-be parents out there. The statistics that are out there, show unfavourable impacts on the child regarding the health of women of childbearing age.
For example, moderate or severe obesity in the mother has been linked to lower chances of pregnancy in about 26% – 43% respectively. Women who are overweight are also at a higher risk of pregnancy loss. Obesity itself can increase the risk of developing gestational diabetes, which in turn increases the future risk of diabetes and being overweight in the newborn. Likewise, having obese parents also increases the likelihood of their future child being overweight. (2)
The role of the father is extremely important too. Fascinating research confirms that dad’s nutritional status and the quality of his diet could improve or hamper the time to conception and sperm quality. While overweight or obesity in males is linked with low semen quality, the same thing happens when dads follow a diet high in saturated and trans-fat. The opposite is also true. Parents who are facing undernutrition, caloric restriction or famine, have a greater chance of having a baby with a higher BMI (Body Mass Index).
Even though we have all this knowledge, the prevalence of overweight and obesity in our country remains very high, and figures show that more than 65% of adults have excess weight. (3)
Nutrition during pregnancy
It’s a fact that a pregnant woman’s diet can influence her child’s health or increase the chances of developing chronic diseases, not only during childhood but also when they grow up.
Chronic non-communicable diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity are reaching epidemic proportions worldwide, along with a lower quality of life and huge costs to medical care. In Australia alone, about half of the population suffers from a chronic disease, however, this doesn’t have to be the destiny of our children. We have the ability to change our child’s future and the health of generations to come. (4)(5)
The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that about 80% of chronic diseases can be avoided through healthier lifestyles and also highlighted the importance of prevention, starting at conception. (6)
Maternal weight gain really matters during pregnancy. Research has found that the risk of adverse effects in the child’s health increases not only when the mother is obese before pregnancy, but also when her gestational weight gain is not within the recommended range. For example, a study found that children born to mothers who gained excessive weight during pregnancy had a greater fat mass at birth and later in life. (7) Additionally, these women will have 2 – 3 times more risk of remaining overweight or obese, perpetuating the cycle of chronic diseases. (8)
Regarding nutrient intake, there are important vitamins and minerals that can influence your baby’s growth and development.
Folate is one of the most important nutrients for mums-to-be, to the level that it has become a public health concern in many countries with mandatory fortification of staple foods with folic acid occurring as a result. Folate supplements help to prevent neurological defects in the baby and can also reduce the risk of spontaneous abortion by 20% .
Iron status during pregnancy is a big deal too and currently it is a matter of public health concern, as iron deficiency anaemia contributes to 23% of the indirect causes of maternal deaths in developing countries.
Omega-3 fatty acids, like the ones you find in oily fish, might improve your baby’s birth weight, and improve their brain and eye development. Other micronutrients such as zinc, choline, Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D, will positively influence growth, neurodevelopment, immune function, and offer protection against some common diseases in infancy like asthma and eczema.
Breastfeeding, the best gift for your child
After birth, nutrition continues to be important for the child’s mental, physical and social growth and development.
Exclusive breastfeeding is the best start in life you can offer to your child. It is recommended that you exclusively nurse your baby until they are six months of age, and then continue breastfeeding along with complementary feeding, until they are 2 years old or even beyond if the mum and the baby desire. (9)
However, despite the numerous advocacy efforts, breastfeeding rates are relatively low worldwide. Just looking at Australia, in the year 2010, 96% of mums initiated breastfeeding, but surprisingly, only 15.4% of babies were exclusively breastfed for up to 5 months. (10) What is happening in these 5 months, to drop these statistics so drastically? (Keep an eye out for a future blog on this)
You also need to know that breastfeeding or formula feeding your baby may influence the development of diseases in adulthood. Some studies found that breastfeeding was associated with protection against chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease, and offered an early protection against obesity. A meta-analysis found that breastfeeding was associated with a 13% reduction in overweight/obesity. (11) Human milk also offers protection against common diseases in infancy. For example, children who are breastfed, are 64% less likely to get a gastrointestinal infection and a 72% lower risk of hospitalization for respiratory infections than formula fed babies. (18)
And lastly, breastfeeding is an excellent strategy to promote postpartum weight loss. It also protects against breast and ovarian cancer. It can decrease the risk by 4.3% and 28% respectively. (13) (14)
Providing children with good nutrition during the first years of life will set the foundation for a healthier life. It is also a crucial time for creating food preferences, patterns of healthy nutrition and physical activity. (3)
During this stage, it is important to increase the consumption of all food groups with a focus on fruit and vegetables, which are important sources of vital micronutrients and foods that are rich in zinc and iron as the infant’s rapid growth diminish stores in their body. The increase in the consumption of these foods can reduce the risks of a number of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular diseases and obesity. Did you know that more than 60% of children who are overweight at this stage will remain obese as an adult? So, prevention is the key here! (15)
Another important nutrient is iron. According to statistics, up to 30% of Australian babies and toddlers are at risk of iron deficiency (16). Iron deficiency anemia during childhood can impair growth and intellectual & psychomotor development, and when these children reach school age, they are more likely to perform poorly in language, coordination, and motor skill tests.
In summary, nutrition and lifestyle factors have a profound effect on a child’s development and long-term health throughout pre-conception, pregnancy, infancy and early childhood. If we as parents can set the foundations from the beginning, it will have huge and positive ramifications for our children and society as a whole. What are you waiting for? Talk to me today about it.