Bringing science and development together through original news and analysis

Improving early childhood nutrition

This policy brief, published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), outlines options for improving child nutrition, health and survival in developing countries.

The health impacts of early childhood undernutrition — including stunting, wasting, anaemia, blindness and infectious disease — are well documented.

Less well known are the high economic costs. Undernutrition can delay brain development, impair academic performance and reduce productivity in later life. Childhood undernutrition in Zimbabwe has been found to reduce lifetime earnings by 12 per cent, for example.

Nutritional programmes traditionally focus on identifying undernourished children at school and then directing interventions at them. But evidence suggests that such action may be too late — the consequences of undernutrition between birth and the age of two are irreversible.

Intervening before the age of two can improve long-term schooling and productivity. A 40-year study in Guatemala has revealed that giving nutrient supplements to children from birth to three years of age improves reading comprehension as adults and increases men's average wages by almost half.

Developing countries that implement targeted effective nutrition interventions could reduce undernutrition-related deaths and disease by 25 per cent in the short term and lead to large payoffs, say the authors. Such interventions include improving mothers' nutrition during pregnancy, encouraging breastfeeding, providing vitamin A and zinc supplementation, salt iodization and oral rehydration salts, and rolling out childhood immunisation programmes.

But to reduce undernutrition in the long term, countries must also address its underlying causes, including poverty, food insecurity, low education, gender inequality, and poor healthcare, sanitation and hygiene. Tackling these can be achieved through agricultural interventions and programmes where participants receive money to spend on food if families access healthcare or education.

Link to full policy brief from IFPRI

This policy brief was written by Marie Ruel — director of — and John Hoddinott — senior research fellow of — the Food Consumption and Nutrition Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, United States.