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Why curious children are smarter and happier

A baby’s physical growth and emotional development happen simultaneously, and begin with the mother’s health and nutritional status even before conception. They affect a child’s life, and impact the nation’s economy too

health Updated: Jun 25, 2017 07:29 IST
Sanchita Sharma
When the mother is healthy, her baby is less likely to be born pre-term and have a healthy birth weight .
When the mother is healthy, her baby is less likely to be born pre-term and have a healthy birth weight .( Illustration: Siddhant Jumde)

The unbelievable happened at Sandhya Nagarkar’s one-room anganwadi (playschool) centre in the congested Janwadi neighbourhood in Gokhale Nagar in Pune. Two families pulled their children out of private schools and brought them back to the tiny state-run playschool because, they said, the children were happier there and learned more.

“There’s a sharp fall in children at anganwadi centres across town between July and September when parents send their kids to private schools, but many come back by October because their families cannot afford private schooling. This is the first time children are back because they want it and their parents want it. I’m hopeful it’s a start of a trend,” says Nagarkar, child development project officer, department of women and child development, Pune.

What’s driving the change is adoption of “early childhood development” activities at anganwadi centres that use interactive teaching tools to seamlessly integrate learning with emotional and behavioural development.

More than 250 million children under-5 years do not receive the appropriate care and support they need to become physically healthy, mentally alert and emotionally secure. These children – a staggering 43% of the global under-5 population – risk of nutrition, stunting and suboptimal brain development, which leads to lower learning and poor adult income.

People with a unhealthy start in life suffer a loss of about a quarter of average adult income per year, leading to the countries they live in forfeiting up to twice their current GDP expenditures on health and education, estimated public health experts in The Lancet Early Childhood Development Series.

Mother’s health

A baby’s physical growth and emotional development are not sequential, they happen simultaneously, beginning with the mother’s health and nutritional status before conception, and during pregnancy and lactation. What the mother eats affects the baby’s brain development, muscle mass, growth, body composition and how insulin, hormone and lipid receptors are programmed that determine the baby’s risk of developing metabolic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity and heart disease as an adult.

When the mother is healthy, her baby is less likely to be born pre-term and have a healthy birthweight (>2.5 kg). Low birthweight babies are three times more likely to have neuro-developmental complications and congenital defects and are at greater risk of cerebral palsy, vision disorders, learning disabilities and breathing and lung problems.

Eliminating malnutrition from expectant mothers will reduce impairments and disabilities from their babies by a third, estimates UNICEF. Despite growth and reductions in infant and maternal deaths, 50.3% pregnant women in India continue to be anaemic while 22.9 % in the reproductive age of 15-49 years are still underweight, which is a powerful indicator of malnutrition in rural India, shows National Family Health Survey-4 data (2015-16).

Feeding the brain

How the brain develops depends on the critical interplay between genetics and the experiences you have, beginning in the womb. The mother’s diet feeds the baby’s rapidly developing brain, which grows exponentially and triples in weight from 100 gm to 300 gm in the last 13 weeks of gestation.

A baby is born with 100 billion brain cells but how these cells get wired depends on the toddler’s sensory experiences. Children who do not get enough sensory stimulation – from watching, listening, smelling, touching and tasting – have lower capacity to learn, think analytically and regulate emotions and behaviour.

Early nutrition

Only 41% babies in India are breastfed within an hour of birth when mothers produce sticky yellowish antibodies-packed milk called colostrum that boosts the baby’s immunity. As per NFHS data, less than 55% children are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life in India, and a shockingly few receive an adequate diet that includes four or more food groups from ages six months to two years. The numbers are the same across states and urban and rural populations, which show under-nutrition has more to do with ignorance than poverty.

Learning

Early child development stimulates the child’s desire and ability to learn and becomes the first defence against delays in learning, growth and emotional security. With more babies surviving – India’s infant mortality rate (deaths/1,000 live births) is 39, down from 68 in 2000 – it’s critical to ensure that those who survive reach their full learning and development potential to become productive adults that participate in economic and social growth. Because if they don’t, India’s “demographic edge” may rapidly become a “demographic burden” of undernourished and unskilled adults trapped in poverty.