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How stunted growth affects more than 150 million children

The first 1,000 days of a child’s life – from conception until the age of two – are critical in determining whether they will be able to reach their physical, intellectual and productive potential.

This is because if a child doesn’t have access to the food and nutrients they need in those first years of life, it can set them back permanently.

Unfortunately, almost a quarter of all children under five show signs they are not developing properly.

In 2017 about 151 million children under five suffered from stunted growth, a condition that has long-lasting effects and continues to be a leading cause of childhood deaths.

What is stunted growth?

Stunting is the impaired growth and development children experience because of poor nutrition or repeated infection.

A child may have stunted growth if they are undernourished or malnourished. The World Health Organization has developed growth standards that apply to all children regardless of their ethnicity, socio-economic status and their diet. If a child falls below these standards, they are defined as being “stunted”.

 

Ibrae Roba Mamo (18 months) undergoes growth monitoring at Maikona Health Centre in Marsabit County, Kenya.

What causes stunting?

Studies have shown stunting can begin in the womb. If a mother does not get enough nutrients, her child has a higher risk of being born underdeveloped.

Stunting can continue while the child is breastfeeding if the mother is malnourished. This is why the first 1,000 days of a child’s life are so important.

Regular infections can also cause stunting. When a young child is frequently sick, nutrients that should be helping their body and brain develop are diverted to fight the disease.

How does stunting affect children?

When a child’s growth is stunted, they more vulnerable to disease and their brain does not develop to its full cognitive ability. When they are repeatedly ill, their body may struggle to retain nutrients.

Repeated illnesses can affect their families, who may have to miss work or school to look after the child and spend more of their limited resources on medical care. The majority of children who are stunted come from families living in poverty and who already under considerable financial stress.

Nutrition-related factors accounted for about 45% of all deaths of children under five in 2016.

For every undernourished child who survives, countless more are permanently affected. Stunted children often struggle to retain information at school and are less likely to graduate. When stunted children become adults they can expect to earn 20% less than adults who were not stunted as children.

 

Clean water, good hygiene and nutritious food can prevent most cases of stunting.

How can stunting be prevented?

There is no cure for stunting, but it is entirely preventable. Ensuring pregnant women know the importance of a healthy diet and have access to nutritious foods can minimise the chances of a child stunting while in the womb.

The World Health Organization recommends exclusively breastfeeding children until they are six months old and continuing breastfeeding until the age of two. Breastmilk has natural growth stimulators and helps boost a baby’s immunity, but only 38% of children under six months are exclusively breastfeed.

When babies reach six months old, they need a balanced diet to develop.

Hygiene and sanitation also plays an important role for mother and child. Women who get repeatedly sick while they are pregnant and breastfeeding have fewer nutrients to pass on to their developing babies. Providing mothers and their children with quality food and introducing safe hygiene practices can avoid millions of cases of stunting worldwide.

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