Nutrition is a fundamental aspect of human life as the body needs nutrients mostly derived from food for optimal function. Adequate nutrition is very important for infants and children to enjoy sustained good health. For infants, exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months play a huge role in the survival, optimal growth and development, as well as the general wellbeing. A normal infant will experience three and two- folds increase in weight and length respectively in the first year of life, alongside noticeable developmental changes in relation to how the different organs function as well as body composition. Growth and development occurring at rapid rates in infants, in contrast to adults, necessitates the relatively high maintenance needs due to higher metabolic and nutrient turnover rates. The World Health Organization recommends that infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life, thereafter, receive nutritionally adequate safe complementary foods while breastfeeding continues until the child is up to two years or beyond. Breastfeeding is a very safe way to achieve child health and survival and is shown to be better than other feeding practices. The first two years of life presents a critical window of opportunity to attain children’s appropriate growth and development through optimal feeding.
The current COVID-19 pandemic amongst all its challenges to the health of people may place infants and young children at risk in many ways that are not reported. At periods of emergency such as during disease outbreaks (or a pandemic as the world is currently facing), natural disaster, war as well as other situations that present threat to life and health, the environment may become extremely dangerous for infants and young children, even if it were previously safe. It is the nature of emergencies to lower the hygiene of environments in terms of quality of food and water and as a result predispose to higher levels of conditions like respiratory tract infections, diarrhea, among others. Food security as well as access to safe water may be far from the reach of many families and can adversely affect the health of infants and young children. Malnutrition (acute or long term) could be a consequent of poorly managed feeding practices and could result in serious complications to the infant or young child.
Very important to note are aspects of infant and young child feeding during emergency and non-emergency periods such as early initiation of breastfeeding, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and introduction of safe, adequate and nutritious complementary foods thereafter as well as continuation of breastfeeding up to 2years and beyond. Method of food preparation, meal diversity and appropriate meal frequency are essential for infants six months and above as well as young children. Breastfeeding has lots of benefits to the infants like reducing the incidence of diarrhea, respiratory infections, improving the immune system, producing higher IQ, reducing the risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes later in life, among many others. One may also consider the economic gains as well as safety of feeding exclusively with breastmilk which already contains all the right nutrients in their right proportions as required by an infant for the first six months of life. Infants should be breastfed on demand and could be about 8-10 times daily. Adequate feeding practices should also be adopted for non-breastfed infants so that their nutritional needs are met. Although breastmilk remains a good source of nutrients for infants beyond six months of age, it is not sufficient to meet their nutritional needs thereafter and should be complemented with semi-solid or solid foods which should be offered 2-3 times (for infants aged six to eight months), 3-4 times (for infants aged nine to eleven months) or 4-5 meals a day in addition to breastfeeding. Foods should be selected from healthy groups like vegetables, fruit, protein, grains, diary, legumes and water. It is recommended that infants and children eat atleast from 5 food groups a day. Healthy snacks should be offered and junk food and soft drinks avoided. There may be difficulties faced with infant and young child feeding both for the parent/caregiver and the infant/child which makes it very important that adequate support is provided at each stage. Breastfeeding mothers may require support with managing stress, eating healthy diets, staying hydrated, doing household chores, taking care of older children; Mothers who are introducing complementary foods to their infants may, in addition, require nutrition information counseling on appropriate food variety, quantity or preparation among many other areas. Transitioning from breastfeeding to complementary feeding (weaning) may not be smooth in some cases which may require seeking help from healthcare providers, counseling and support from family, friends as well support groups.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF, March 2020), recently provided some infant and young child feeding recommendations for mothers during the COVID-19 pandemic which encouraged mothers to:
Wash their hands frequently with soap and water, including before and after contact with an infant.
Ensure surfaces around the home are cleaned regularly using soap and water.
Wear a face mask, if available, when feeding or taking care of an infant if she has respiratory symptoms.
Maintain physical distancing with her infant from other people and avoid touching eyes, nose or mouth.
Follow the necessary respiratory hygiene during feeding if the mother is suspected or confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus (COVID-19) and is isolated at home.
Continue breastfeeding should the infant or young child become sick with suspected, confirmed COVID-19 or other illness.
Feed infant who is on artificial feeding with cup preferably, wash hands thoroughly with soap and water before handling feeding cups, bottles, teats as well as limit the number of caregivers that feed the infant.
It is essential that healthcare providers, private and public health organizations as well as government agencies, who are involved directly or indirectly with infant and young children increase support to families in terms of what to feed, how to feed and when to feed infants and young children who are in the complementary feeding period.
Regular visits to the health facility and continuous monitoring of growth and development of infants and young children will help identify if there is growth faltering or other areas that require improvement. Mothers and caregivers are advised to seek advice or counseling regarding nutrition of their infants and young children from qualified healthcare professionals as soon and often as necessary.
Health quote of the week
“Your diet is a bank account. Good food choices are good investments.”