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How nutrition during the first 1,000 days shapes the rest of a child's life

How nutrition during the first 1,000 days shapes the rest of a child's life

Picture of Lauren Weber
[Photo: Sara Terry/HuffPost]
[Photo: Sara Terry/HuffPost]

During a reporting trip to Madagascar in 2016, I learned of the importance of nutrition during the first 1,000 days and the dangers of stunting. It was horrifying to realize that the U.S. was failing to apply the same principles guiding international nutrition standards. It led me to pursue an investigation into what the first 1,000 days looks like for children across the United States.

Worldwide, the 1,000 days concept of nutrition informs early childhood feeding guidelines. The World Bank, USAID, the World Health Organization and UNICEF all have pushed the importance of nutrition in this vital window from in utero until a child’s second birthday. Without the proper mix of nutrients, young brains will not grow to their fullest potential, diminishing kids’ opportunities for the rest of their lives and perpetuating cycles of poverty.

The same basic tenets apply here in the U.S. — we just don't talk about them.

So, I set out to explain what all this meant for the nutritional decisions moms make each and every day, which can feel small in scale. After all, it’s just one juice box, one piece of pizza, one bag of Cheetos.

I discovered over the course of my reporting that there are some pretty stark statistics: A quarter of toddlers don’t receive enough iron, one in five children are obese, one in six households with children are food-insecure, and more than half of infants participate in the federal Women, Infants, and Children program for supplemental nutrition.

And the top vegetable a toddler in the U.S. eats is a french fry.

These children’s futures are at stake, said Lucy Sullivan, executive director for the nonprofit 1,000 Days, which advocates here and abroad for better early nutrition. She was just one of the experts I interviewed for my Huffington Post story, “More Than Half Of American Babies Are At Risk For Malnourishment.”

“We take nutrition for granted in the U.S. because we think there is this abundance of food and children are of course going to get fed,” she said.

But what they're getting fed matters, especially during their first 1,000 days in life. In a turning point, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a groundbreaking policy statement on the crucial importance of the first 1,000 days in January.

“Failure to provide key nutrients during this critical period of brain development may result in lifelong deficits in brain function despite subsequent nutrient repletion,” the AAP’s nutritional committee wrote.

And yet, through my reporting I discovered that the U.S. government’s nutritional guidelines are for those age 2 and up — further contributing to the knowledge gap of the importance of the 1,000-day window. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to offer guidance on the needs of such young children in the upcoming 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, millions of children will have missed that vital window by then.

It's easy to feel disconnected from stark data points, but I knew real parents making real decisions were behind these figures. I knew I needed to make them the focal point of my story in order for the stark facts to come to life on the page.

I wanted to talk to a wide swath of mothers who were within the 1,000-day window — those who were pregnant, had infants or toddlers — and came from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds in Los Angeles County, which has the largest population of food insecure people in America.

Finding those moms, ones that grappled with nutrition for their kids and were open to talking about it, was the largest challenge of this reporting project. It required going through WIC message boards, having sources introduce me to friends of friends, calling local breastfeeding groups and documentarians, and ultimately connecting with moms through the Great Beginnings for Black Babies organization.

The second important challenge I faced during my reporting was making sure these statistics hit home. The fact that over half of the nation’s infants are considered nutritionally at risk while being served by the WIC program could be a story by itself, but combining it with the obesity, iron and nutritional data helped make the statistics stick. America has a problem with nutrition in the first 1,000 days — but someone needed to string together some of the data through graphics and reporting to showcase the alarming reality.

Finally, my fellowship training drilled this home for me, but it’s worth repeating: you don’t have a story if you don't have the data. The AAP statement, combined with the statistics on nutrition, grounded the experiences of my sources. I would not have been able to string it all together without calling in a cadre of experts over seven months to walk me through the issue. So much of my reporting did not make the final piece, but informed my outlook and decisions on what to include in the final feature.

My encounters with moms from all walks of life encouraged me to look at the common struggles all moms face when it comes to feeding their children — time, cost and convenience. And all of these factors are exacerbated for low-income families, where children are most nutritionally at risk.



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and disheartening, to see the same challenges in the US as developing nations. Thanks for bringing it to light Lauren.

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Well written Lauren, meaning we should take it seriously for what our children eats. The problem is the temptation of eating junk foods are every where. The term nutritious food from other kids sounds like no fun. As parents, we are the model to our children. Their full potential is the most important thing for me. I really learned a lot from your post. Thank you for that.

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It is the most common and important topic to discuss for the mothers. Children's are not getting the required nutrients in their diet. They like to have junk food more than the green vegetables, proteins in their diet. Research shows that many children’s diets in the US are unsatisfactory. It is important to bring the healthy food habits in the child's earlier growing years. The school can help to make children learn why they need to adopt healthy food habits. The awareness is required.


The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 National Fellowship will provide $2,000 to $10,000 reporting grants, five months of mentoring from a veteran journalist, and a week of intensive training at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles from July 16-20. Click here for more information and the application form, due May 5.

The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 Symposium on Domestic Violence provides reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The next session will be offered virtually on Friday, March 31. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


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