By Donna Gilgallon and Laura McIntyre (Paediatric Dietitians, NHS Ayrshire and Arran)
With Children’s Day being celebrated, we felt it was only fitting to highlight the importance of a child’s first 1000 days. The concept is a relatively new one which is being promoted worldwide. Focusing on the nutritional journey a child takes from conception to their 2nd birthday; their first 1000 days is so important. But why? A growing body of evidence suggests that much of a child’s lifelong potential is determined within these initial 1000 days, and nutrition is a key element. As parents and health professionals, we have the opportunity to help set a strong foundation for lifelong health and well-being for all young people.
A healthy diet, whilst a baby is growing in the womb, boosts brain development and reduces the risk of several diseases, as well as obesity in later life. Pregnancy is also a time when a Mum can influence the tastes their baby will prefer as a child.
We hope that through good health promotion in the UK, all parents are aware of the benefits of exclusively breastfeeding their baby from birth until 6 months of age. Not only does breastfeeding provide all the essential nutrients that a baby needs for growth and development, if Mum’s are given the right support, it can be one of the most treasured experiences for both Mum and baby.
Around the age of 6 months most babies will be showing signs of readiness to wean: exhibiting an interest in food; sitting up well with support; grabbing at foods and an ability to chew. This is another crucial step in a child’s development and one which can have a huge impact on their relationship with food for the rest of their lives. We often receive referrals for children aged 2 and over who have fussy eating tendencies, and as a result mealtimes can be the most stressful part of the day for many families. When speaking with parents facing this challenge, these difficulties can often be related back to feeding in the early years of life.
As Dietitian’s we love food and would love children and adults alike to feel our passion too. That’s why we cannot express the importance of family mealtimes enough. If a baby has the opportunity to sit down, in a relaxed environment with little or no distractions, alongside the rest of the family, they are more likely to enjoy a wide range of foods. Providing a baby with as many tastes and textures during weaning also helps their acceptance of new flavours throughout their childhood and helps to provide all their essential vitamins and minerals.
Some noteworthy nutrients in a young child’s diet include Iron and vitamin D.
When in the womb, babies lay down enough iron stores to last around 4-6 months. Following this it is important they have some form of iron in their diet. The best sources are red meat as our body absorbs this very easily e.g. beef. Other good sources of iron include:
- fortified breakfast cereals
- wholemeal bread
- Pulse vegetable (beans, lentils and chickpeas)
- Dark green leafy vegetable
Another vital nutrient is vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin! Most of our vitamin D comes from sunlight (very few foods contain this vitamin) and as we don’t get much sunshine in Scotland it is recommended by NICE that supplements should be taken by all:
- Pregnant women
- Breastfeeding women
- Children between 6 months and 4 years of age taking less than 500ml infant formula
Vitamin supplements including vitamin D are available via the healthy start scheme for eligible families (https://www.healthystart.nhs.uk/). It’s our job as AHPs to highlight and promote this to families.
By now we hope you have a better idea of the way we can influence the first 1000 days of a child’s life. By providing a child with the best experiences in these initial days we are giving them the best start to a happy, well nourished and healthy life.