The Importance of Nutrition in Early Childhood Development

The relationship between nutrition, health and learning is undeniably strong.  In order for children to grow properly, they must eat a well-balanced diet. The last Early Childhood Development (ECD) Community of Practice (CoP) on the 23 October 2018 focused on the important topic of nutrition – a critical component of the essential package of ECD services.

The CoP also included a showcase from Hope Worldwide (HWW), an organisation that serves vulnerable children aged 0-6 years. HWW presented on its ECD parenting programme which empowers caregivers to be more responsive through positive parenting practices. Each session focuses on 3 aspects:

– The self-confidence/esteem of the caregiver

– The relationship between child and parent/caregiver (done through positive parenting interventions)

– Other important ECD topics

The programme is extensive and conducted over a period of 10 weeks and aims simply to improve early development outcomes.

North West University’s Chantell Witten then gave the CoP a bold presentation which challenged the ECD community to centralise the issue of nutrition in the provision of ECD services, especially in the first 1000 days. Despite its status as a middle-income country, South Africa has distressingly high levels of growth stunting in children which stems from inadequate nutrition practices. The implication is that early learning stimulation efforts are ineffective when a child is stunted. There needs to be a collective effort to promote breastfeeding, especially in the first 1000 days, as it is an important aspect of a child’s healthy brain development.

The Grow Great campaign presented last and showed the CoP exactly how they had been supporting nutrition through galvanising the country towards a stunting free South Africa by 2030. Through the support of caregivers throughout a woman’s pregnancy, and the support of community healthcare workers (CHWs) – who in turn support mothers and babies – Grow Great is providing a model of care and support that is scalable and affordable. Grow Great is currently running a social network where pregnant mothers can gather to learn about their needs, the needs of their babies and support each other on their respective journeys. Parallel to this, the campaign has established a community of practice were practitioners are also supported through training that will enable them to support mothers and children with regards to healthy nutrition practices.

The CoP ended with a group activity wherein CoP members were asked to reflect on their own nutritional practices and identify the gaps between policy and practice. Some of this thinking is captured below.

Lack of public health services awareness Limited awareness on breast feeding and nutrition Lack of access to nutritious food
Lack of monitoring and evaluation on policy integration regarding nutrition Junk food is more readily available Lack of funding
Overweight children are confused with regards to establishing a healthy lifestyle Lack of hygiene being integrated with nutrition Lack of training at DSD level on nutrition