Stunting is the impaired growth and development in children caused due to poor nutrition, recurrent infections, and lack of psychosocial stimulus. It is a primary indication of malnutrition and infections like diarrhoea, helminthiasis in early childhood and malnutrition during fetal growth caused by an undernourished mother. Stunted growth in children is defined as if the height for age in children is more than two standard deviations of the WHO Child Growth Standards Median.
Stunting in early childhood, especially in the first 1000 days from conception until two years of age impairs growth and adversely affect the functional development of the child. Some of the consequences include poor cognition and academic performance, lost productivity and this when associated with excess weight gain later in childhood, may increase the risk of nutrition-related chronic diseases later in adulthood.
As per the United Nations agencies 2020, reports about 149 million children under age five, which is around 22% of children across the globe were affected by this condition. This deprives many children of their chance to achieve their full ability before they even reach the school stage. Stunted children may never regain the height lost as a result of stunting and most children will never gain the equivalent bodyweight. Stunting not only affects physical development but also inhibits the child from attaining his full cognitive development as an adult.
Causes Of Stunting
The causes of stunting are quite similar to the causes of malnutrition in children. In most cases, stunting occurs during the 1000-day period from the time of conception to a child’s second year of age. The three key causes of stunting are poor feeding habits, poor maternal nutrition, and inadequate sanitation. Some of the other causes include:
A family history of stunted or delayed growth
Growth hormone deficiency can lead to stunted growth.
Hypothyroidism -The thyroid gland is responsible for making hormones required for growth and an underactive thyroid gland can lead to stunted growth.
Stress, use of certain medications during pregnancy, anemia, kidney or lung diseases are a few contributing factors for stunted growth in children.
Health Effects of Stunted Growth
The impact of stunted growth in children is prominently shorter stature and some of the other effects include:
High risk of illness and premature death
Delayed mental and cognitive development, leading to poor school performance and later reduced productivity in the work.
Impaired cognitive capacity
Stunted growth can be passed on to the next generation and it is called an intergenerational cycle of malnutrition.
Stunted growth is diagnosed by comparing a measurement of children’s height to the WHO 2006 growth reference standards, children who fall below the fifth percentile of the reference population in height for age are defined as stunted. The lower than the fifth percentile corresponds to less than two standard deviations of the WHO Child Growth Standards Median.
The main goal of UN agencies, government, and other NGOs to prevent stunting is to focus on providing optimal nutrition during the first 1000 days of a child’s life, from conception until the child is two years of age. This stage in a child’s life is very crucial – a “window of opportunity” as the brain develops rapidly and lays a strong foundation for future cognitive and social skill ability. Additionally, it is also the time when the children are at higher risk of infections that lead to diarrhoea and other disorders, which may impede the child’s development and growth.
Ensuring optimal nutrition for pregnant and lactating mothers is very important. This lowers the risk of babies born with low birth weight, which is the key risk factor for stunted growth. After birth, mothers should be encouraged to exclusively breastfeed babies for 6 months, these measures are considered pillars of preventing stunting. Furthermore, introducing proper weaning practice after 6 months of age together with breastfeeding until two years of age is essential.