From birth to a child’s second birthday, nutrition plays a critical role in determining how he or she grows, experiences illness and develops mentally. The high burden of wasting (28 million children) and stunting (62 million children) in South Asia indicates that far too many children will not develop to their full potential due to nutritional deprivation in early life.
Exclusive breastfeeding immediately after delivery until six months of age provides infants with nutrients and protects them against diseases. Over half of infants in South Asia are not breastfed from within the first hour of life, and less than two-thirds of infants benefit from exclusive breastfeeding.
Women and other caregivers need accurate information, skilled counselling and support to breastfeed successfully. While access to information and counselling is improving, there are often gaps in the availability and quality of support. Conflicting advice from health workers, community members, friends and peers can confuse mothers and undermine their confidence. It is important that those in a position to influence mothers are able to give consistent and correct advice and support.
Many vulnerable women, particularly those in the informal sector, are denied sufficient maternity leave or opportunities to continue breastfeeding when they return to work. They are forced to stop exclusive breastfeeding too early. From six months of age, children need frequent nutritious meals to grow healthily in addition to continued breastfeeding for two years and beyond. Some parents are confused by inappropriate and unethical marketing practices of companies and distributors that claim their breast milk substitutes (milk powders) are equivalent or superior to breastmilk.
Data indicates that the quality of children’s diets in South Asia is poor. Less than half of children aged 6-23 months are fed sufficient meals a day and less than one in four eat the minimum number of food groups. Poor sanitation, lack of handwashing, and unsafe water exposes these children to infections that further deplete their young bodies of precious nutrients. Food is often withheld from young children when they fall sick - at a time when their nutrient needs demand even more nutritious food.