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Some reflections on NEX South Asia

By Natalie Sessions on 30 September 2020

Reflections on the latest Nutrition Exchange South Asia edition on improving young children’s diets.

Recently I was asked to provide a summary of the two South East Asia Nutrition Exchange Special Editions for the upcoming Field Exchange, which also has a special focus on the region. It provided an opportunity for me to once again dive into the rich content of the editions, particularly the latest publication which focused on young children’s diets and the importance of complementary feeding.  

I was struck by the first words of the introductory article written by Harriet and Zivai from UNICEF ROSA which noted, ‘The day a baby takes his or her first bite of food is a celebrated milestone. It marks the end of dependence on a mother’s breastmilk alone, and a new phase of discovery – new tastes, textures, and smells...It can also be an anxious time for caregivers. How much food to give? How many times a day? Which foods are nutritious and safe? These are questions that many caregivers experience. But these issues are compounded many times over for the millions of families in the region who lack the know-how and resources needed to feed their children in the best way possible.’ 

The issue of sub-optimal nutrition among South Asian children has been noted as a significant challenge within the region. For me, this represents not only a challenge in itself but particularly when reflecting on the fact that South Asia is home to over half of the world’s wasted children and 40% of the worlds stunted children under the age of five years. As such, poor feeding in young children has major consequences for children themselves but also for communities, societies and the economies of nations. 

While these problems are known all too well and consistently countries in the regions show poor diet diversity and diet adequacy scores, what stood out to me within this Nutrition Exchange publication was the richness of innovations described to solve the problem of inadequate diets. Many articles spoke of the importance of nutrition education and counselling as well as the need to engage with mothers, caregivers and those who influence them in innovative ways (such as through Facebook and text messages). One example from Afghanistan I found particularly noteworthy was the positive deviance/ hearth model in which parents of children whose mid-upper arm circumference (MUAC) is in the ‘green zone’ are identified as role models. These parents are requested to engage with the community and share their positive child-feeding practices with other parents and demonstrate the adoption of similar practices.

Articles also reflected the fact that there are serious economic barriers to improved young child feeding practices at an individual and societal level. As such articles reflected on the need for counselling to be combined with cash transfer platforms. One story that I found particularly thought-provoking was the example from Bangladesh wherein a social protection programme, known as the Mother and Child Benefit Programme (MCBP), is addressing nutritional vulnerability by prioritising support to infants and young children aged 0-4 years and their mothers.

An emanating theme throughout the publication is the fact that each country is unique and improving complementary feeding is not straightforward, it requires taking into account an array of underlying drivers that can reduce availability of and access to adequate, high-quality diets. As summed up in the edition, it is vital for multiple actors across different systems to act in tandem to improve young children’s diets. 

For more information, read the Nutrition Exchange publication here.

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