Nutrition Spotlight: Healthy Growth and Development

Posted on Mar. 14th, 2011 at 4:45pm

The birth of a baby can be an exciting, overwhelming and life-changing time for many parents. Perhaps even more dramatic than the change experienced by a new parent is the rapid change in growth and development that is demonstrated by a newborn from birth through toddlerhood.

But changes in a baby’s growth and development are more than just exciting milestones. Growth and development are important measurements that may serve as early indicators of possible nutrition or health concerns.

Assessment of Growth

Proper growth is typically carefully monitored by a healthcare professional throughout a baby’s young life. Different factors, such as the baby’s weight, length and head circumference, are taken into consideration during healthcare visits and then used to track and assess the pattern of the child’s growth over a period time using a growth curve chart. There are two major growth curve charts used by healthcare professionals around the world, one created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and one created by the World Health Organization (WHO).

While some of the specifics in each chart may vary, in general, a consistent pattern over time tracking along the reference curves indicates healthy growth in development, while falling off or accelerating significantly beyond the child’s curve may be cause for further evaluation. If there are concerns about growth, additional tests may be recommended.

In addition to physical growth, nutrition also plays a role in other important developmental milestones, including visual, neurological and behavioral. Healthcare professionals typically perform physical exams and ask caregivers a number of questions to assess an infants’ development in these areas. If there are any concerns, more comprehensive assessments may be recommended.

Helping to Promote Healthy Growth & Development

Healthy growth and development depends on a constant supply of essential nutrients in the proper amount and proportion. That’s why scientists at Mead Johnson conduct ongoing studies related to nutrient absorption, intake and feeding patterns. Congenital conditions and problems with intake, retention or absorption require consultations with healthcare specialists to determine the best nourishment options for an infant or young child.

However, in many cases, a parent has unique control over the nourishment that is offered to his or her child during the first years of life. The nourishment that is provided can be optimized in several ways. For example:

  • Pre-natal nutrition of a pregnant woman: The growth and development of a baby can be impacted by his or her mother’s health and nutritional status before and throughout pregnancy. For example, proper maternal consumption of folate can help decrease the risk of the neural tube defect spina bifida,[i] while maternal consumption of omega-3 fatty acids may help promote brain development.[ii]
  • Post-natal nutrition of a breastfeeding mother: In their first months out of the womb, newborns will grow faster than at any other time in their lives. Experts agree that breastfeeding is the best way to ensure that newborns and infants get the nourishment they need. In addition to providing a balanced source of protein, fat and carbohydrate, breast milk contains vitamins and minerals needed for healthy growth, as well as components such as immunoglobulins and oligosaccharides that help build a baby’s immune system and keep his or her digestive tract healthy. Proper maternal nutrition can help affect the composition of breast milk. Still, while breastfeeding is a preferred method of feeding, breast milk itself does not provide infants with adequate intakes of vitamin D. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a supplement of 400 IU per day of vitamin D for all breastfed infants beginning soon after birth.
  • Infant formulas: In cases where a mother cannot or chooses not to breastfeed, selecting a newborn or infant formula to meet a baby’s unique nutritional needs can play an important role in healthy growth and development. For more than a century, scientists at Mead Johnson have studied the composition of breast milk in order to design formula that provides a product as close to human milk as possible. These efforts have also led to adding other important nutrients, such as vitamin D, that may be found in lower concentrations in breast milk. Just as breast milk’s nutritional composition changes with time, a variety of newborn and infant formulas are available to meet the changing nutritional needs of a growing baby.

Concerns About Over-Nourishment

In recent years, concerns about the rising rates of obesity have led researchers to examine the role that infant nutrition plays in the risk of becoming overweight or obese later in life.

To date, the science isn’t clear about the relationship between early infant nutrition and the risk of obesity. Despite common perceptions, a comprehensive research review published in Obesity Reviews concluded that the body of scientific evidence does not support a causal association between breastfeeding and a reduced risk of overweight.[iii]

While more research needs to be done on the topic, one thing that’s clear is calories matter. Parents should continue to focus on nourishing their children with the proper amount of calories, based on the age, gender and individual needs of the child. A healthcare professional can help determine the appropriate calorie needs of a growing infant or child.

The Nutrition Spotlight is part of a continuing series of brief articles compiled by the Mead Johnson research team about common topics in infant nutrition. All topics can be found by visiting the Nutrition and Your Child page.

[i] Collins J.S., Atkinson K.K., Dean J.H., Best R.G., Stevenson R.E. Long term maintenance of neural tube defects prevention in a high prevalence state. J Pediatr. 2011; Feb 22; Epub ahead of print.

[ii] Jacobson J.L., Jacobson S.W., Muckle G., Kaplan-Estrin M., Ayotte P., Dewailly E. Beneficial effects of a polyunsaturated fatty acid on infant development: evidence from the inuit of arctic Quebec. J Pediatr. 2008; 152, 3:356-364.

[iii] Cope, M.B., Allison, D.B. Critical review of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2007 report on ‘evidence of the long-term effects of breastfeeding: systematic reviews and meta-analysis’ with respect to obesity. Obes Rev. 2008; 9(6):594-605.