Child malnutrition


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Grave consequences for child development

Between 40 and 45% of children living in a developing country are estimated to be under-sized for their age. This delay in growth underlines a chronic state of malnutrition, indicating multiple nutrient deficiencies, particular in terms of energy, but also leading to repeated infection.

A child without sufficient nutrients in its daily intake is not only exposed to physical and motor growth delays, but also to heightened risk of mortality, reduced immune defences and decreased cognitive and learning capacities. Malnutrition limits the productivity of all those who are its victims, and thus serves to perpetuate poverty.

Just as with serious malnutrition, growth delays also hinder a child’s intellectual development. Sick children with chronic malnutrition, especially when accompanied by anaemia, often suffer from a lower learning capacity during the crucial first years of attending school.


Different forms of malnutrition


  • Protein-energy malnutrition (PEM), also known as protein-calorie malnutrition
  • Iron deficiency : nutritional anaemia which can lead to lessened productivity, sometimes becoming terminal
  • Vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness or a weakened immune system
  • Iodine deficiency, which can lead to serious mental or physical complaints
  • Foliate deficiency itself can lead to insufficient birth weight or congenital anomalies such as spina bifida.


Sadly, a child can only suffer several traces, in varying degrees, of all these forms of malnutrition at the same time.

The place of breast-feeding and weaning in infant nutrition

A mother’s breast-feeding is the first source of essential micronutrients, also contributing to overall sound health and nutrition. To avoid malnutrition, it is recommended that a mother should immediately, and exclusively, feed her child by the breast for the first six months, and subsequently supplement this with foodstuffs appropriate to the age. In developing countries, the malnutrition so frequently encountered between the age of six months and two years is due to bacterial contamination of the weaning feed, or its poor nutritional value.

Different cultures have varying lengths of time for breast-feeding a baby, but they often are longer than a year. All the same, after four months, a mother’s milk alone no longer covers all her baby’s nutritional needs, in particular in energy and iron. It is at this stage that the risks of PEM and iron deficiency anaemia grow, and here the mother, whilst continuing with breast-feeding, adds in supplementary feeding. This can in the form of gruel based on cereals (rice, millet, sorghum or maize/corn), roots (cassava) and tubers (yam), enriched with a sauce or sugar. Gruels as this are no doubt rich in carbohydrates, but their protein content is low. They tend also to be kept in unhygienic conditions and can cause the ‘weaning diarrhoea’ so common in tropical countries.

In some cultures, as in parts of Africa, weaning can be very abrupt, literally from one day to the other. When a mother is pregnant, or thinks she is, the baby may suddenly be deprived of its maternal milk which is then allocated to another infant. Flummoxed, the baby may display behavioural difficulties and even sometimes refuse to feed at all, which does not help at all in an already precarious nutritional situation.

By the age of two onwards, the scene may have been set for malnutrition, or for a pre-existing condition of malnutrition to worsen. The child is fed exclusively with the family dish, prepared twice, or only once, daily. The child’s portion will seem to be a large helping, from a collective dish which is often very spicy, of low energy value and with few fats and proteins. In such conditions, only 60-70% of calorific needs and 80 to 90% of protein needs are met.


Learn more : Spirulina as a food complement to support health and cognitive development, Denis-Luc Ardiet and Denis von der Weid, Antenna Technologies, 2007