Undernutrition is estimated to be associated with 2.7 million child deaths annually or 45% of all child deaths. Globally in 2016, 155 million children under 5 were estimated to be stunted (too short for age), 52 million were estimated to be wasted (too thin for height), and 41 million were overweight or obese. The first 2 years of a child’s life are particularly important, as optimal nutrition during this period lowers morbidity and mortality, reduces the risk of chronic disease, and fosters better development overall. Few children receive nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods; in many countries less than a fourth of infants 6–23 months of age meet the criteria of dietary diversity and feeding frequency that are appropriate for their age.
The single best indicator of a child's nutritional status is growth, particularly weight gain in short run and length (height) in the long run. Improving their diets leads to improved growth. Eating a poor diet as an infant or a child hampers the cell division that occurs at this critical stage. Consuming an adequate diet later usually won't compensate for lost growth as the hormonal and other conditions needed for growth will not likely be present.
Nutrients critical for growth
The baby's weight doubles in the first 4 to 6 months and triples within the first year. Such rapid growth requires a lot nourishment and sleep. After the first year, growth is slower; it takes 5 years to double the weight seen at 1 year. In most cases especially in third placed countries, when a child is weaned from breast milk, they are fed a high carbohydrate, low-protein diet. This diet supports some growth but does not allow children to attain their full genetic potential. To guide your food choices for your baby, focus on the following vitamins and minerals in addition to all of the nutrients your baby is continuing to get from breastmilk, formula or both. Make sure to choose foods that are appropriate for their age and stage, as well as for your baby’s oral motor skill level.
1. Iron: During their first 4-6 months, babies will have a sufficient store of iron, built up during their days in-utero. After those 4-6 months, those stores become depleted. Luckily breast milk and iron-fortified formulas supply iron, but it probably won't be enough, especially when solid foods are not introduced. Most easily absorbed iron are from animal sources which include meat, and eggs. It can also be obtained from plant sources, like spinach and other greens, broccoli, beans, soybean, whole grains, dates and iron-fortified infant cereals.
N:B When iron-rich plant foods is eaten along with foods containing vitamin C, the iron absorption is improved. Fresh fruits and veggies like peppers, papayas, mango, strawberries, broccolis are great Vitamin C rich first foods for the baby.
2. Proteins: Proteins are literally a part of every cell in their body - working hard to build, maintain and repair body tissues hence, its importance for their growth and development. That means baby needs to acquire them from food. Luckily, there's just the right amount of protein in breast milk and iron-fortified formula, and when solids are introduced, there are plenty of rich sources one can try; such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy. Baby also gets protein from non-animal sources such as nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, as well as some fruits and vegetables.
N:B: Make sure your baby gets protein from a variety of sources.
3. Zinc. Zinc is an important mineral that plays a key role in maintaining immune function and also, needed for baby's growth and development as it's required for making proteins and DNA. Babies who are deficient in zinc can have increased susceptibility to infections and growth impairment. Found in beef, lamb, turkey, shrimp, pumpkin, nuts(cashew nut), sesame seeds, spinach and yogurt.
4. Calcium: Calcium helps in strengthening of teeth and bones. It also makes sure that bones become strong enough to avoid any fracture when your baby starts running and playing. More often the requirements are met through breast milk as well as the formula milk. Foods like cheese, orange juice, oatmeal and yoghurt are excellent sources.
5. Omega3'S: The benefits of omega 3 for adults are very well known, but it works for the younger ones too. They are not only essential for immunity, vision and brain development, but are also necessary for developing cognitive skills in babies. DHA and EPA are the essential omega 3 fatty acids, which our bodies cannot produce. Hence, it is very important to include them in the diet. Breast Milk is the richest source of DHA, the brainy fat. Adding avocado, cooked egg yolk/chicken, fish like salmon, or powdered flax seeds from 6 months and powdered walnut from 1 year is a great way of adding Omega 3 to baby's diet.
6. Vitamins: All Vitamins are essential for the baby's overall growth and development. Fat-soluble vitamin like Vitamin A is great for baby's skin, eyes and for building baby's immunity. Dairy, eggs, and colored fruits and veggies are great sources of this vitamin. Vitamin D is great for bone mineralization and for immunity. Water-soluble vitamins, like, B vitamins, are the true energy boosting nutrients that keep baby active and alert. Whole grains like oats and cereals are all great sources of many B vitamins. Introduce baby to a variety of grains but one at a time.