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A paediatrician is holding a child's hand and examing for malnutrition defects.

Maternal Health & Child Undernutrition: Challenges & Solutions

October 20, 2022 5:01 am
Rean Foundation

The Burden of Maternal & Child Malnutrition: Is There a Silver Lining?

Eons have passed, and yet the world remains far from being free of malnutrition, particularly maternal and child malnutrition. UNICEF estimates that nearly half of all deaths in children under the age of five are due to malnutrition, which makes them more vulnerable to infections and delayed recovery.

It is heart-wrenching to know that undernutrition due to extreme starvation is one of the biggest killers of babies and young children all over the world. Equally pathetic is the state of maternal health in developing and under-developed countries.

We may point fingers at many reasons or raise a hue and cry over the general lack of financial independence and education in women. However, neither are solutions to a problem that's plagued the world for centuries. It is high time we implemented stringent measures to change the fate of maternal health and child undernutrition all over the world.

It's time to understand why.

Child Malnutrition: The Underlying Causes & Consequences

Malnutrition is a condition where the body is deprived of essential micro and macronutrients required to maintain overall health and bodily functions. It is not a disease or disorder but more of an indication of undernourishment inhibiting normal growth. Anyone can become malnourished, regardless of their age.

According to the World Health Organization, physical conditions like obesity and overweight also come under malnutrition. Since children and infants are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition, the WHO advises optimizing your child's nutritional needs within the first thousand days.

Severe Acute Malnutrition or SAM

WHO defines SAM as very low body weight for the height of the adult or child. Severe acute malnutrition is a child killer. Children with this condition require immediate medical treatment because it can cause organ damage, blurred vision, and muscle wasting.

Without a doubt, hunger is the biggest cause of malnutrition. However, it can also happen due to the following:

1. Inadequate nutritional intake

In many cases, the child does not receive the required calories due to obvious reasons like:

  • Incorrect formula measurement for babies
  • Lack of attention from parents or caregivers
  • Calorie restriction to avoid weight gain
  • Lack of funds to buy adequate amounts of food

2. Calorie retention inability

Poor hygiene and malnourishment often result in stomach infections like diarrhea and colitis, which makes it hard for the child to retain the calories. In some cases, children may lose the ability to absorb and retain nutrients when their body is wracked with more serious conditions like:

  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Gluten allergies
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Chronic liver disease

3. Calorie absorption inability

Pre-term babies and children born with congenital heart disease are often malnourished because of their body's inability to absorb the consumed nutrients. This problem is common in children with chronic or severe medical issues and feeding aversions.

4. Need for medical diet

Sometimes, children need a specially curated diet to help them cope with genetic conditions and rare metabolic issues. Such diet restrictions deprive them of vital nutrients that fuel their physical growth and leave them severely malnourished.

We cannot emphasize enough the need to shore up a child's nutritional needs right from conception to two years of age. The development of a child will be irrevocably altered by inadequate nutrition after the age of two years.

Signs That Your Baby is Malnourished

Malnourished children show distinctive warning signs such as:

  • Severe weight loss
  • Underweight or overweight
  • Obesity
  • Stunted growth
  • Poor appetite due to digestive issues
  • Not outgrowing clothes
  • Lack of interest in food
  • Lethargy, drowsiness, and poor physical activity

Malnutrition can cause irreversible changes in infants and toddlers because these initial years of their lives are crucial to lay a strong foundation for physical, mental, and motor development. Generally, a baby's brain grows most rapidly during the first year of their life. The lack of adequate nutrition to fuel brain development can have long-term effects on the brain.

Effects of Malnutrition in Infants & Young Children

Children who have faced severe malnutrition in their first two years of life often experience after effects like:

  • Inability to attain an optimum physical size, resulting in poor physical capacity to work or play
  • Learning problems, poor memory retention, and inability to focus in class, which in turn lead to increased absenteeism
  • Reduced immunity leads to an increased risk of contracting infectious diseases and a higher mortality rate
  • Poor cognitive development causes severe damage to the brain and impairs motor development, affecting school performance

Also Read: Under The Spotlight: Prevalence of Anemia in Adolescent Girls

Maternal Health: How Undernutrition Affects Mothers & Babies

The World Health Organization defines Maternal Health as "the health of women during pregnancy, childbirth, and post-natal period." However, the word "health" means so much more than a woman's physical health during these stages in her life.

Their mental and emotional health also contribute to a positive experience and play an indispensable role in helping their infants reach their full potential and well-being. Moreover, a well-nourished mother has the immunity to ward off contagious diseases that can put her children at risk. Adequate nourishment also gives women the physical strength and cognitive ability to bear and deliver children and look after them despite the various challenges they face in life.

On the other hand, maternal malnutrition poses several threats to the quality of life of the mother and her child. The adverse effects can range from fetal and maternal complications during pregnancy, difficulties during labor, and poor postpartum recovery to functional and skeletal abnormalities in infants. The prevalence of maternal overweight and obesity has also been linked to childhood obesity, which may persist into the early adult years.

Consequences of Maternal Undernutrition

  • Complications during pregnancy result in the birth of underweight infants
  • Lack of adequate breast milk to nourish the newborn child, which increases the child's risk for malnutrition and poor immunity
  • Higher risk of maternal and infant mortality during pregnancy or labor

Maternal malnutrition can become a vicious cycle if not dealt with immediately. A malnourished mother can pass on the effects of undernutrition from one generation to another. This vicious cycle is evident in children with stunted physical and mental development in the later years of their lives.

Like aftershocks of an earthquake, children of malnourished mothers often remain vulnerable to diseases, exhibit poor academic interest, and are less productive as adults.

REAN Foundation: Breaking the Vicious Cycle of Maternal & Child Malnutrition

Nipping the effects of malnutrition and breaking this malicious cycle is a herculean challenge but not an impossible one. There's a lot of groundwork to be done on many levels. Focussing on the nutritional aspects alone will not help. We need to take a multidisciplinary approach to improve awareness, hygiene, sanitation, overall well-being, and the use of resources.

REAN Foundation collaborates with several NGOs and charitable organizations. We strive to make small to significant changes in the lives of underprivileged communities with barely any access to proper healthcare.

The REAN Foundation has created many programs to ensure maternal health and nutrition in babies. Ultimately, REAN programs help prevent malnutrition by improving maternal, newborn, and child health. Our HealthGuru App also allows medical teams to stay in touch with pregnant women and young mothers living in rural areas and give them timely nutritional advice and guidance.

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