Adequate consumption of nutrients in the first stages of life is imperative to ensure both a child’s survival and their physical and mental development. The Convention on the Rights of the Child establishes that every infant and child has the right to nutritious food. Still, over 1.5 million children suffer from stunting, defined as low height relative to age, or wasting, which is low weight relative to height, and about half a million children are overweight. Malnutrition and stunted growth are key contributors to infant and child mortality; not simply due to starvation, but because inadequate nutrition leaves children more susceptible to infection and disease. For those who survive, malnutrition and stunting impair cognitive abilities including language acquisition, and can contribute to the development of chronic diseases later in life. On average, individuals who had good nutrition during childhood go on to achieve better educational outcomes and have greater incomes in adulthood; therefore, improving infant and child nutrition is an important component of poverty reduction.
Malnutrition has two parts: undernutrition results from not consuming enough calories, while micronutrient deficiency is a lack of the necessary vitamins and minerals. It is possible to be both micronutrient deficient and also overweight, especially if one is consuming foods that lack vitamins and minerals. For infants, exclusive breastfeeding is recommended during the first six months of life, and then babies ought to be fed with a mix of breastmilk and solid foods until about age two. Breast milk has significantly more nutritional and immunological value than formulas or substitutes. In 1981, the WHO adopted the International Code of Marketing Breastmilk Substitutes, which recommends that breastmilk substitutes should be available, but not promoted. People who were breastfed as babies are less likely to become overweight or obese later in life. Not all parents have adequate support and education surrounding breastfeeding, especially given that some societies stigmatize breastfeeding. Mothers who work outside their homes can face additional challenges; women who are employed full-time were more than twice as likely not to meet their breastfeeding intentions.
For children, a diet of diverse and nutritious food is necessary to prevent micronutrient deficiencies. School health and nutrition programs can both feed children and help them establish healthy habits. Some governments require nutrition labeling on packaged foods, and food fortification, by which extra vitamins or minerals are added to food, is an option. Still, the price of food can be prohibitive, and in many areas food of low nutritional quality is cheaper and more readily available than food that is rich in vitamins and minerals. About one billion people do not have electricity in their homes, and consequently have fewer options for food preservation and preparation. Local agriculture and food supply chains may lack the infrastructure or economic incentives to provide for the food needs of the surrounding population. Food systems ought to be both environmentally sustainable and resilient enough feed a population through drought or other extenuating circumstances. It falls to the WHO to determine the most effective, equitable, and sustainable methods to improve infant and child nutrition.