Constant lamentation by Nigerians over high rate of infant mortality in the country which is the second largest in the world, experts say was no longer necessary. What matters, they say, is the ability of stakeholders concerned, particularly mothers, to overcome the challenge through improved nutrition awareness and also understanding the fact that nutrition shapes the life and future of a child beginning from conception, writes Angela Onwuzoo
Nutrition plays a crucial role in the mental and physical development of a child. This all important role according to experts begins from conception to delivery and until the baby reaches the age of two years.
This period is known as First 1000 Days of Life. For many experts, this period provides mothers a window of opportunity to nurture a great generation in Nigeria and Africa by simply ensuring that their babies are properly fed with the right nutrition to be able to grow out of diseases, poverty and poor educational attainment .
The right nutrition during the first 1,000 days window include exclusive breastfeeding and experts say , it has a profound impact on a child’s ability to grow, learn, and function well. And that, it can also shape a society’s long-term health, stability and prosperity. Breastfeeding initiated immediately after birth and continued until two years with appropriate complementary feeding has been found to have both short and long term impact on the mental and physical development of the child.
A mother of five, Mrs. Chinyere Martins, who resides in Bariga Area of Lagos, told our correspondent during the immunization of her three months old baby girl –Chidinma against poliomyelitis at the Shomolu General Hospital last week, that she decided to exclusively breast feed all her babies when she had a good outcome of it from her first baby Chika whom she said was now 10 years old. She explained: “The benefits of exclusive breastfeeding are so much. All my children are very healthy.
The only time I take them to the hospital is during immunization like this. They don’t fall sick anyhow like one of my neigbour’s children, who their mother gives water three days after they were born.
When I tried it on my first daughter, Chika, I have five children, three girls and two boys, Chika grew very well without any health challenge. Our family doctor constantly encourage me not to give water to her, no matter the challenges I was facing. So, I held unto his advice and Chika grew so well to the admiration of many.
“So, the way Chika became very healthier and robust through that experience, made me to do exclusive breast feeding for all my children and then introduced complimentary feeding for them such as pap and soyabean , after six months. Though ,I still breast feed them up to a year and six months before calling it quit, one unique thing about my children for those in school is that they are doing well in their studies. “And we are happy for it. Though I am a housewife, the support of my husband also helps me to practice exclusive breasting.”
On her feeding habit during pregnancy, Mrs. Martins said:” I was told by my doctor each time I go for ante natal care to consume a lot of fruits and vegetables that they help in the brain development of my baby which I did.” The story of Mrs Martins, no doubt highlights the importance of child nutrition and why mothers have to invest in it if they want to have smart babies .
Generally, available statistics show that improved nutrition in this First 1000 Days of the life of a child reduces the grave impact of malnutrition such as stunting and wasting in the growth and development of such child. Recent reports from several local and international agencies indicate that many Nigerian children under the age of five are stunted and suffering from chronic malnutrition.
In fact, one of the reports revealed that 53 per cent of infant mortality in Nigeria was due to malnutrition. The cognitive and physical damage caused by malnutrition during the 1,000-day-window between a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday, expert say is severe and often irreversible, with profound consequences for a child’s future and the futures of communities and societies.
Since the 1,000-day period from the beginning of pregnancy to a child’s second birthday will determine the health and future of the child, stakeholders are therefore calling on mothers in Nigeria to explore the windows of opportunities embedded in this period by adopting appropriate feeding practices such as exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of the child’s life to further reduce the burden of infant mortality in the country.
Thereafter, complementary feeding, they noted can be introduced for 24 months with foods containing the various essential micronutrients such as Vitamin A, iodine and zinc, amongst others. Currently, Nigeria has the highest infant mortality rate in Africa and second highest in the world after India, says the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Looking at the issue of Smart Babies and Nutrition in their First 1000 Days, some nutritionists who spoke to The Union, said raising awareness on exclusive breast feeding in particular was critical to a child’s brain and body development, stressing that breastfeeding is the best way to give newborns the nutrients they need.
According to the President of Nutrition Society of Nigeria, Prof. Ngozi Nnam, “Breast milk is highly nutritious with easy-to-digest proteins and natural immunities that protect babies against disease and infection. Colostrum, the milk that mothers produce in the first days after birth, is not only dense in nutrients, but is also rich in antibodies that protect babies from bacteria and viruses that cause infection”. Nnam said, the most important thing is for mothers and all stakeholders concerned to do the right thing.
The right thing, she says, is for healthcare practitioners to begin to properly educate expectant mothers on the importance of nutrition in the brain formation, growth and development of the child beginning from conception until the child’s reaches the age of two. Mothers on their part, they say, should also have a change of attitude and orientation and begin to practice those appropriate feeding practices recommended by experts and the World Health Organization(WHO) for the optimal development of their children.
In his contribution, the past President of Nutrition Society of Nigeria, Prof. Ignatius Onimawo, told The Union that, for every age grade, there are some nutritional requirement that every individual required for optimal development. He called on mothers to embrace exclusive breastfeeding, stressing that if a child is properly breast fed, he or she will be resistant to childhood diseases and also have a higher chances of survival than malnourished child. The WHO estimates that around 220,000 children could be saved every year with exclusive breastfeeding and therefore recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed for six months.
He urged mothers to avoid giving water to their babies when on exclusive breastfeeding, adding that breast milk contains 80 percent water, hence there was no need to feed the child with water during the first six months of life. Onimawo who is a professor of nutrition also appealed that foods rich in Vitamin A, Iron, Zinc and other micronutrients be given to the child after six months when complementary feeding is introduced until the child attains two years of age.
According to him, adopting these health feeding practices would go long way in reducing the high infant mortality rate in the country and also tackle the menace of malnutrition which he said takes the lives of over 1million Nigerian children every year. “First of all, we need to get things right.
Mothers need to have adequate knowledge on how to prepare complementary foods. You can make complementary food from our locally available foods in such a way that they will be adequate in the nutrients that they are suppose to supply. “But at this moment, what we are doing is that we use this watery pap known as Akamu in Igbo language which is deficient in energy, deficient in protein and deficient in micronutrients. This has to stop. “We are saying that, once a child is six months old, we should give an adequate complementary food that will meet the energy, protein and micronutrients need of the child. This can be done even using the local pap by mixing it with well prepared soya bean, groundnut, crayfish among others” he explained.
Also, Chief Nutrition Officer, Lagos State Ministry of Health, Oluwatoyin Adams on her part listed the provision of timely and targeted counseling for mothers on child nutrition as the way forward. Adams identified hidden hunger as a major public health problem in developing countries like Nigeria which makes the child vulnerable to disesaes. She further called for improved knowledge of adolescents/youths on good nutrition practices in addition to improved enlightenment on exclusive breastfeeding and food fortification.
For Dr. Bartholomew Brai, a research fellow at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), Yaba, improved feeding of children under two years of age is important because it is at this period they experience rapid growth and development. According to him, mothers should watch what they give to their children when introducing complementary foods, as low quality complementary foods contribute to malnutrition.
Brai maintained that appropriate complementary feeding was critical to a child’s development, pointing out that it also has the potential of addressing the scourge of malnutrition. He also revealed that six percent of under five deaths could be prevented through appropriate complementary feeding practices.
Corroborating the views of her colleagues, the Co-ordinator, Nestle Nutrition Institute Africa, Mrs. Chioma Emma- Nwachukwu, said under five deaths can be effectively tackled through nutrition, arguing that the nutrition knowledge of healthcare professionals has to be improved so that they will be able to educate expectant and nursing mothers properly on the essential role of nutrition in the life of a child.
Speaking on the power of the first 1000 days, Emma-Nwachukwu said good nutrition makes children overcome childhood diseases , adding that nutrition was an investment into the future of the child. “ To nurture a great generation in Nigeria and Africa, its starts with good nutrition which we must begin with the 1000 days of a child’s life”, she said.