#5for5 campaign: why nutrition in pregnancy is vital for mother and baby

Child nutrition (Early years), Childcare, Early childhood development, Health and education convergence, ​Learning through play (Early years)

Eating the right things when you’re pregnant is vital for the health of the mother-to-be and her unborn baby.

In the western world, women get health checks as soon as they find out they’re pregnant. But in developing countries the picture is very different.

Women in the world’s poorest countries are 300 times more likely to die in childbirth or from pregnancy-related complications than those in richer countries, according to the United Nations children’s fund UNICEF.

When it comes to nutrition and what is needed for the best possible outcome, pregnant women and children born in the poorest countries lag far behind in terms of a balanced diet, care and stimulation.

That leads to a damaging cycle – poor nutrition in expectant mums leads to a less healthy baby and child.

Around the world, at least one in three young children suffers from some form of malnutrition. It is an underlying cause in almost half of all child deaths.

As a result of malnutrition, 159 million children are too short for their age and 50 million are too thin for their height.

Many men, women and children go to bed hungry – and this is particularly dangerous for a pregnant woman and her unborn child.

A woman’s nutritional intake impacts both on her own health during pregnancy and the health of her baby. Malnutrition during pregnancy can cause devastating results.

A baby’s organs are developing during the first five weeks of pregnancy – so for the organs to grow properly, it is vital for women to have food supplies readily available.

Women need to eat more when they’re pregnant. An additional 150 calories per day is needed to support the baby in the first three months of the pregnancy. By month four, she should be eating 300 calories more every day.

In addition, women must have the proper nutrients in their diet, such as foods with folic acid, iron calcium, protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D and vitamin A. 

According to the World Food Programme, half of all pregnant women in developing countries are anaemic (having an iron deficiency), which causes around 110,000 deaths during childbirth per year.

The WFP says: “Without enough nutrients, a baby is at higher risk of neural tube defects, brain damage, premature birth, under development of organs, death and more. If a child becomes malnourished in the womb, the damage can be permanent.

“Improving nutrition is an investment that could save the lives of women around the world; it will also decrease the number of birth defects and disabilities seen in newborns and young children. In many developing countries, nutrition is essential to promoting a happy and healthy lifestyle where no person goes to bed hungry.”

Researchers at Harvard University found that by eating at least 75 grammes of protein per day pregnant women could prevent diseases of pregnancy such as preeclampsia (metabolic toxemia of late pregnancy). 

But, according to UNICEF, 30 of every 100 women in the world who give birth aged between 15 and 40 do not have antenatal care – 46 of them in South Asia and 34 in sub-Saharan Africa. 

UNICEF says: “We are helping local communities provide information to women and their families on signs of pregnancy complications, on birth spacing, timing and limiting for nutrition and health, and on improving the nutritional status of pregnant women to prevent low birth weight or other problems.

“We provide provides micronutrients to stave off anaemia and birth defects – all of which lead to healthier mothers and babies.

Five factors of pregnancy and nutrition

  1. About 200 million women become pregnant each year, most of them in developing countries. A review of studies on the nutritional status of pregnant and lactating women showed that women in developing countries consumed only two-thirds of the recommended daily intake of energy.

  2. The nutrient intake of pregnant and lactating women tends to be only slightly higher than those of non-pregnant women, although the nutritional requirements for expectant mums are significantly greater.

  3. Poor prenatal health and nutrition is reflected in high maternal mortality rates in developing countries. It’s been reported that 600,000 women die each year from pregnancy-related causes. The rate for developing countries is 500 per 100,000 live births – in developed countries it’s 10 per 100,000 live births.
  4. In many countries, tradition forces women to be the last to eat at meals, which may result in them receiving smaller portions. This notion severely impacts pregnant women.
  5. When a pregnant woman’s body is unable to get enough nutrients to support embryo growth, the cells may not divide properly, meaning the foetus’s development could be impaired. 

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