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Ground-breaking nutrition study of children around the world

A study of over 7,000 children growing up in Ethiopia and three other countries suggests children suffer irreversible damage from poor nutrition in the first years of life.

Over the last two decades, the Young Lives study has been collecting data on children and young people in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam. The study follows the lives of children growing up in a range of circumstances within each country, with oversamples of poor children, many of them stunted (as measured using their height and comparing this to the World Health Organisation median for that age and sex in their home population.)

The latest findings, which look at over 7,000 children born in 2000/1, suggest that malnutrition early on in life can have a devastating impact on a child’s cognitive and educational development. Isolating poor nutrition from other factors in the children’s lives, the study reveals that stunting at the age of eight significantly reduces a child’s ability to learn.

The findings are published in a report released this week by Save The Children (STC) – ‘Food for Thought’. In analysis commissioned by STC, the data showed that children who were stunted at the age of five scored 7% lower on average in a maths test three years later. By the age of eight, they were also 19% less likely to be able to read a simple sentence, such as ‘The sun is hot’ and were 12.5% less likely to be able to write a simple sentence correctly.

In addition, the findings indicate that malnutrition affects the children’s chances of being in the correct grade at school for their age. After considering other factors in a child’s background, youngsters who were stunted at the age of five were 13% less likely to be in the correct grade when they reached the age of eight.

Once children get behind in their school development, evidence suggests this can be reinforced by parents who focus attention on siblings who show more potential. This and low achievement at school can have a terrible impact on a child’s perception of themselves and the Young Lives study has linked stunting at the age of eight with reduced self-esteem and educational aspirations. The ways in which children view themselves can then be linked to their work and earning outcomes in later life.

Such data is important to show how malnutrition is both a cause and a driver of poverty, locking families and whole communities into a cycle of deprivation and entrenching inequalities across the generations. STC is therefore using the release of its report to encourage governments to pledge more support for nutrition at the hunger summit to be held in the UK next month.

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