Into the mouths of babes: What the first 1000 days of a child’s eating can tell us

by | Jan 18, 2022 | News

A new study from the University of Auckland, Infant Feeding in New Zealand, has focused on analysing what children eat in their first 1000 days to try and understand how Aotearoa ranks second in the world for child obesity, behind the United States.

The World Health Organisation estimates that there will be 70 million overweight or obese infants and young children worldwide by 2025.  These children will then face higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, degenerative joint disease and some cancers.

Professor Clare Wall of the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences at the University of Auckland leads the nutrition department and is one of the authors of the study. Her research is on nutrition in infants and how that nutrition affects their health as they age.

Going back to the first 1000 days of a child’s life and finding out what they are eating and their eating culture can provide important insight into the diet and habits that lead to obesity.

Wall says, “We know it’s a really essential window to get things right for so many developmental milestones and we know that nutrition is critical.”

Setting the right path in the first thousand days in a child’s life is not just to avoid obesity, it helps guide children to grow to their potential. About 80 percent of the brain is developed by the age of two.

Wall says, “The amount of brain growth is phenomenal. They kind of grow into their heads. So, if the brain is not getting the right nutrients, especially iron and zinc at this stage, development will be affected. Nor is it reversible. It could be too late by five years old to rectify this. ”

New Zealand has had national infant feeding guidelines since 2008, setting out how parents and caregivers should feed healthy infants and toddlers. But prior to this research, nobody really knew what our infants were actually eating.

The Infant Feeding in New Zealand research was commissioned by the Ministry of Social Development and used data from the  Growing up in New Zealand GUiNZ study, hosted by the University of Auckland. This cohort study has followed 6432 children since birth. Those children are now aged 10 and the study has produced a wealth of data and insight into our children’s lives. For this study, Clare and the team combed through responses to questionnaires and dates gathered when the cohort of children was nine months old.

What do parents and caregivers actually feed their infants? And how does this compare to the “ideal” of the health ministry’s guidelines? The good news is that on average these infants are okay. About 94 percent are eating three or more solid meals a day at nine months of age, and more than 80 percent of infant meals had no added sugar and salt.

The not so good news is that almost half of the nine-month-olds had tried sweets, chocolate, hot chips and potato crisps and only approximately one third were eating vegetables or fruit twice or more times daily as recommended.

To establish a baseline to measure how New Zealand’s infants do nationally, the team devised an Infant Feeding Index (IFI), a distillation of the key measures and milestones in the infant feeding guidelines to enable tracking of the complex array of diet variables as infants age and hit their developmental milestones. They ended up with an IFI that gives a score of 100 if the feeding guidelines are fully followed.

When rated against the new Infant Feeding Index, the average score for the children’s diet was 70 out of a top score of 100. Only 1.5 percent of infants achieved the “ideal” score of 100, but almost a third of the cohort scored 80 points or more, which Wall says, is a promising result.

A key concern from the findings was the relatively low number of infants feeding exclusively on breast milk to six months of age, as per the government recommendations.  Only 15.8 per cent of the infants achieved this which puts New Zealand well below the WHO target of 50 per cent.

Wall says parents and caregivers do their best, though often end up tacking against the contrary winds of socioeconomic pressure. “The infant diet has changed in a similar way to the adult diet,” she says. “More processed food, more salt, more sugar and more fat.”

As the infant grows up, it naturally becomes more and more part of the family and their family’s food environment. “There’s less time and so it becomes harder to prepare separate meals for infants,” she says, with infants often eating the same food as the adults.

As food becomes more processed, it’s not only faster to eat but also easier to consume larger volumes of it. “There is a concern that our children from a very young age are over-consuming because it’s so easy to eat.”

As for the larger research into what our infants are eating, the team is returning to the GUiNZ data to see what has actually happened to the children, who at nine months were not scoring high on the Infant Feeding Index. They want to know if their predictions have become a reality.

Original story published on newsroom.

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Peter Wright

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