Why the First 1,000 Days Matter

March 6th, 2014

by Lucy Sullivan
Executive Director, 1,000 Days

Every mother has a story about the beginnings of her child’s life.  Many of them are joyful, some are heartbreaking, but all of them are important.  And almost all of them will have at least one thing in common: the desire to give their child the absolute best start to life.
Our instincts as moms to nourish, nurture and protect our children from the moment we become aware of their existence actually has a scientific basis.  Researchers have identified the first 1,000 days of a child’s life—from pregnancy through a child’s 2nd birthday—as a critical window of time that sets the stage for a person’s intellectual development and lifelong health.  It is a period of enormous potential, but also of enormous vulnerability.

Ensuring every child has the right start to life during these precious 1,000 days begins first and foremost with nutrition. The nutrition that we get from the food we eat early in life is a critical building block for the growth of our bodies, the development of our brains, and the health of our immune systems.  Quite simply, there is no other period of a person’s life when nutrition has as profound an impact as in the 1,000 days from a woman’s pregnancy until her child’s 2nd birthday. It is why poor nutrition—whether it’s called malnutrition, undernutrition, hunger or obesity—is particularly damaging to women, infants and young children.

As the Executive Director of 1,000 Days – an organization that champions better maternal and child nutrition around the world – I am intimately familiar with the statistics that convey just how devastating malnutrition is:

  • Malnutrition is responsible for almost half of all deaths of children under age 5; virtually all of these deaths are preventable.
  • Nearly 170 million children have had the growth of their young bodies and brains stunted by chronic malnutrition..
  • Women who are poorly nourished throughout their lives are at greater risk of complications during pregnancy and death during childbirth.
  • The damage caused by poor nutrition early in life can be irreversible.

But as both a new mom to a 15 month old and an expectant mom 6 months into my second pregnancy, these statistics are not just part of what I hope is a powerful argument to get people to pay more attention to this issue.  They now carry a very personal kind of resonance for me.

Luckily for me, my full-time job is to try to help the women and children behind these statistics, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to do the kind of work that I do.  I, along with many other committed advocates, try to bring the very real struggles of women trying to give their children the best start to life to the attention of political leaders, finance ministers, and anyone who can help bring greater attention to the need to do more on basic nutrition.

If the faces of the women and children behind these statistics are what fuel my passion for this issue, then the knowledge of how to address the problem of malnutrition is what gives me hope.  It comes down to three basic things. First, make sure that during pregnancy mom eats a healthy, nutritious diet, takes prenatal vitamins, and gets the medical care she and her baby need.  Second, as soon as baby is born and for the next six months of baby’s life, breastfeed! Giving baby breast milk, and only breast milk, in his or her first six months is the most powerful protection against infection and disease that a child could get, and has a host of other benefits for both mom and baby.  Third, once baby begins his or her journey into toddlerhood at around 6 months, introducing solid foods that are packed with healthy proteins and fats, and vitamins and minerals, can help build strong bodies and brains.

Translating this knowledge into action is where so much of the work needs to happen. And it’s where moms everywhere can help. The first step is building awareness of the power of good nutrition during the critical first 1,000 days. The more people talk about how important it is to give kids everywhere the best start to life by making sure they have the right nutrition, right from the start, the more we can start to change the statistics on malnutrition. And as moms, the more we tell our stories, the more we can give voice to other moms who share our desire, but perhaps not our ability, to give their own kids the best start to life.

This month, 1,000 Days is hosting an online “March for Nutrition” to raise awareness about the critical role of good nutrition in the 1,000-days between a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s 2nd birthday. We invite you to share your stories and support the march by following #March4Nutrition.

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