The importance of the first 1000 days of a child’s life is not a new concept, especially regarding nutritional practices such as complementary feeding.
“Around the age of 6 months, an infant’s need for energy and nutrients starts to exceed what is provided by breast milk, and complementary foods are necessary to meet those needs,” UNICEF notes.
The 6-month mark has been identified as the time a child is “developmentally ready” for solid foods that are nutritionally adequate and safe.
A greater need for societal awareness about nutrition
However, a 2018 review of local complementary feeding practices has shown that there is still a greater need for societal awareness about nutrition during the first 1000 days, says dietitian and spokesperson for the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA), Estelle Strydom.
Referring to data by the University of Pretoria, Strydom says that in South Africa, “the diets of many older infants do not meet the criteria for a minimally acceptable diet” and that unsuitable foods like processed meats, soft drinks, sweets and crisps form part of their daily diets.
Professor Lize Havemann-Nel, a dietitian and researcher at North-West University’s Centre of Excellence for Nutrition, believes that a good understanding of optimal complementary feeding is vital for addressing malnutrition in South Africa.
South African children represent 80% of the global cases of stunting.
Statistics paint an alarming picture of malnutrition in SA.
Described as the “triple burden of malnutrition” in a paper by University of Zululand authors Mbalenhle Mkhize and Melusi Sibanda, SA’s kids experience both under and over-nutrition, as well as vitamin and mineral deficiency.
To add context, Mkhize and Sibanda say that South African children represent the majority of global cases (80%) of stunting.
This condition drastically lowers physical and mental development caused by poor nutrition.
Lack of nutritional knowledge is listed as one of the many reasons for malnutrition, Mkhize and Sibanda note.
Complementary feeding guidelines
Dietitian, Mbali Mapholi urges parents to understand complementary feeding guidelines which highlights the kinds of nutrient-dense foods suitable for their babies.
“The transition from only breastmilk to suitable complementary foods, along with continued breastfeeding, works well if the food offered to baby is soft and easy to digest, which is why the first solid foods are usually pureed and mashed… and as they develop, the food becomes more textured and soft finger foods can be offered,” Mapholi advises.
What’s more, Mapholi recommends including foods packed with protein such as unprocessed meat, fish, chicken and eggs into your baby’s daily diet. These foods foster growth and development and prevent deficiencies.
“Plant protein sources such as soya, beans, peas and lentils are affordable and are also important to include in the diet regularly,” Mapholi adds.
Mapholi also suggests parents include the following foods:
Dark green leafy vegetables and orange-coloured fruit and veg
- Citrus fruits
“Spinach is easy for us to grow in our gardens or in pots so that we can harvest the leaves we need each day, while the plant keeps on growing and providing more. Vegetables such as butternut and carrots, and fruits such as citrus, paw-paw and mangoes are good sources of vitamins A and C that help to maintain your baby’s good health,”Mapholi explains.
Dairy – “500ml is recommended so that your child gets sufficient calcium intake for strong bones and healthy teeth”.
Mapholi advises parents and caregivers exclude these nutrient-poor foods from their baby’s diet:
- Avoid tea and coffee as these drinks contain caffeine·
- Avoid sugary drinks and juices which are high in sugar·
- Avoid highly processed and high-fat foods·
- Avoid salty foods
“Use herbs for flavour instead of adding salt. Substitute clean water in place of juices and soft drinks that are high in sugar and can damage new teeth,” advises Carey Haupt.
The dietician explains that due to their undeveloped bodies, substitutes and avoiding certain foods altogether is best for your baby.
And to ensure your child forms a healthy relationship with food, Haupt recommends a playful approach.
“It makes good sense at this very young age to let your baby play with their food. Picking up a stem of broccoli enables them to look, feel, smell and taste. By letting them explore and interact with new foods, you may avoid picky eating later on”.
To learn more about complementary feeding, catch ADSA’s informative video series here: ADSA – Association for Dietetics in South Africa.