When a baby or young child does not have enough to eat or does not have enough nutrients then their bodies do not grow as they should. This means they are undernourished. Babies and young children who are not eating enough stop smiling, they do not make happy noises, they move less, they look thin and are ill more often as their body cannot fight disease well.
If the child continues like this and does not eat a good mix of food and has no one to help him the child can become very ill and suffer from malnutrition. It is important to recognise babies and children who are not eating enough as early as possible and before they get very ill.
Children with severe malnutrition look very thin with loose wrinkled skin and are very unhappy or they may look swollen with cracked and peeling skin and they will not want to eat.
A baby or young child with acute malnutrition needs special treatment at a health clinic. Here, they are sometimes given food like ‘plumpy nut’ that is a very good ‘therapeutic food’ that helps the malnourished child recover. Once recovered (and as soon as possible), the families need to start feeding the child a good balanced diet. The family may need help and support from others to help their children get better and to stop this happening again. Families can also make a high-energy food to give to their older babies (6 months+) after each breastfeed or to their children 4 to 5 times a day. Also give children fruit every day. Make sure this special food is prepared with clean hands and bowls and made fresh each day. Make sure the child is kept warm and clean and given clean safe drinks.
Children who have had illnesses like diarrhoea, malaria or measles lose weight because they get weak and they are less able to eat. Children who are not given extra food after illness can slip into under-nutrition and then malnutrition. This creates a terrible illness–malnutrition cycle.
Some Reasons for Under-nutrition and Malnutrition
Children usually do not have enough good food because their families are poor. Perhaps there is not enough money for the food or land to grow the food. Or the child’s parents are busy trying to get money and they do not look after the children in the way that is needed. Or there is a lack of understanding about how to best use food that IS available or prepare it well. Or people hold mistaken beliefs about food or feeding practices. Or the food choices are not made wisely. Other reasons include conflicts or problems in the society. Children with special problems may not be valued as much; girls may not be given as much to eat as boys. So the causes of under-nutrition can be complicated.
- Babies and young children lose weight when ill and do not recover weight afterwards.
- Babies are bottle-fed. Milk powder incorrectly mixed or mixed with unsafe water leading to low weight or diarrhoea.
- Families do not know what food to give babies and young children especially when the baby is moving from breast milk to food.
- Families do not have enough food to give the children.
- Not enough of the money available to the family is used for good food.
- Girls are not given enough to eat as people think they don’t need so much food.
- Young children have small stomachs but they are given too much bulky food so their diet is not balanced.
- There is enough food but not enough variety especially food that makes you glow.
- Families are not interested in giving good food.
- Family members (including children) may not know how to prepare balanced meals.
A malnourished child may not want to eat or may have energy to eat only very slowly. Offer a little food every hour or two. Be patient and persistent. Keep feeding this high-energy food to the child until she begins to gain weight and gets her energy and spirits back.
While they recover, keep malnourished children warm and clean. Give them clean safe water in small sips all the day. Give them fruit every day.