By: Tanaporn Perapate
The first 1,000 days of a child’s life is the most critical period for building a strong foundation for age-appropriate development and ultimately helping that child reach their potential. Children who receive nurturing attention and quality care from parents or caregivers tend to have strong early learning readiness, eagerly embrace new learning experiences and establish important connections between their physical growth and their brain development. The first 1,000 days begins at conception and rolls through a child’s second year of life, during which it encompasses three stages: (1) pregnancy (the first 270 days), (2) infancy, from birth to 6 months of age (the first 180 days) and (3) toddlerhood, from 6 months to 2 years of age (the first 550 days).
Pregnancy (the first stage) marks the time from conception until delivery (the first 270 days). In this period, a woman’s food and nutrient consumption will have long-term impact on the development of her child. Pregnant women should balance their dietary intake among all five food groups: carbohydrates; fruits and vegetables; dairy; meat, fish and protein foods; as well as oils, fats and sugars. But nourishing the baby means more than eating a balanced diet. It also requires the sufficient consumption of clean and fresh foods that are not highly seasoned. Thus, good hygiene and sanitation practices are vital. The food should also contain all the nutrients and minerals that a baby needs, including iron, vitamin A, folate and iodine. Babies absorb these nutrients through the umbilical cord. If the mother does not consume a sufficient level of nutrients, a child’s development will be adversely affected.
Then comes the transition to the second stage – the birth! When the child is born, the mother’s body will be ready to take over with all the nutrition the baby will need. Breastmilk will be stimulated as soon as the baby is delivered, and the mother should nurse her baby soon after birth. The first food the baby receives from the mother’s breast is called ‘colostrum’, which is a natural super food. It is particularly bountiful in the nutrients that develop a child’s immune system and reduce their chances of infection during infancy. It also has the nutrients that boost a child’s development and are considered key resources for brain development.
Despite this amazing food that is produced naturally, many mothers and fathers ignore or don’t realize the basic building block value of breastmilk. According to the findings of the 2016–2017 Multiple Indicators Cluster Survey (MICS) for Thailand, just under 40 per cent of babies nationally were breastfed within the first hour of their birth. For babies born in private hospitals, the rate was even lower, at nearly 25 per cent (compared with 42 per cent in public hospitals).
Not only is mother’s breastmilk beneficial during the first several months after the delivery, exclusive breastfeeding from birth to 6 months (the first 180 days) is the optimal way of feeding infants. And exclusive means nothing else is required – mother’s milk provides everything a baby needs. Yet, a significant number of mothers and fathers in Thailand believe that infants up to the age of 6 months need to drink water. This may be due to traditional beliefs passed down from elders that infants are thirsty or that water is needed to rinse a baby’s mouth. The truth is, infants do not need to drink any water during the 180 days after their birth because their mother’s breastmilk contains a sufficient volume of water.
With the recent MICS findings also indicating that only one in five children younger than 6 months in Thailand is exclusively breastfed, concern for the healthy development of Thai children is rising. This finding is a far cry from the World Health Organization’s global nutrition targets of 50 per cent by 2025. Moreover, analysis of study findings published in The Lancet medical journal in January 2016 indicated that longer lactation intervals correlate with higher intelligence or IQ levels – three points on average.
Breastfeeding also benefits the mother as well as her child. When a baby is breastfed, the mother’s body releases stored nutrients. This helps reduce the mother’s blood pressure and stress hormones in her body and reduces the potential risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
In the final stage, between 6 months and 2 years (the first 550 days), children’s teeth begin to grow. At this point, children are ready to consume first the semi-solid and then the solid food that is appropriate for their age and that should progress in variety month to month. Along with the introduction of solid foods, however, breastfeeding remains incredibly important – until a child’s second birthday – for helping them thrive and grow with healthy outcomes. Appropriate diet and nutrients for children at this stage reduce the risk of severe malnutrition, which can lead to the dangerous stunting of their’s growth. Again, the recent findings of the 2016–2017 MICS give plenty cause for concern: Only around three in ten Thai children are breastfed after the age of 1 year, and only one in ten are given breastmilk after the age of 2 years.
We cannot overstate how crucial the first 1,000 days are for a child. It is indeed the window of opportunity to begin ‘developing a child’. Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months sets the foundation for a child’s cognitive, physical and emotional development. It reinforces their ability to learn, to adapt to their environment and to develop psychological resilience. Most importantly, it is the role of fathers, mothers and other primary caretakers to understand what is needed to nurture infants and early learners to ensure that their brain develops in a way that will help them reach their full potential. Parents and caretakers need to understand that quality brain growth and a child’s development begins on the first day of life.
Early moments matter!