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What is stunting?

Kristin Myers | 09 January 2017 | 0 Comments

Significantly stunted growth and development, caused by chronic undernutrition, threatens almost a quarter of children around the world. We’re exploring the condition and its impacts on children’s lives and futures as healthy, productive human beings.

The lifetime costs of stunting ripple far beyond physical measurement. Graphic: Aeri Wittenbourgh.

The lifetime costs of stunting ripple far beyond physical measurement. Graphic: Aeri Wittenbourgh.

Put simply, stunting is defined as lower than average height for a child’s age, but the real-world impacts ripple well beyond a physical measurement.

Beyond height, stunting can negatively affect a child’s brain function, organ development, and immune system – limiting their future productivity, and even that of their children. In effect, stunting can live on through the generations like a sad inheritance. 

Luckily, there’s something we can do about it. Stunting can be prevented if the essential steps are taken in the roughly 1,000 days between pregnancy and a child’s second birthday. And for older children, all is not lost. Some stunting effects can be reversed or reduced.

What causes stunting?

There are many different factors that contribute to child stunting, which is one of the reasons that preventing the condition calls for comprehensive action. For example, availability of diverse foods, the way a child is fed and cared for, access to clean drinking water, proper health care, and hygiene and sanitation can all affect a child’s development. Indirectly linked, yet still very important are the factors of gender equality, engagement of men and fathers, income-earning opportunities, food prices, and climate events. Children who are stunted are also more likely to have stunted children, and are prone to becoming overweight as adults – posing another health risk.

Stunting in children is manifested through a cycle of malnourished mothers, resulting in underweight babies, which experience stunted growth and chronic malnutrition over time. Graphic: Aeri Wittenbourgh.

Stunting in children is manifested through a cycle of malnourished mothers, resulting in underweight babies, which experience stunted growth and chronic malnutrition over time. Graphic: Aeri Wittenbourgh.

The vicious cycle of stunting

After a child is born, it is important that both the mother and baby receive post-natal care, and that the infant receives its mother’s breast milk. Breast milk strengthens an infant’s immune system, and gives the child the nutrients needed to grow. While low birthweight can predispose a child to stunting later in life, good nutrition and care during the first two years of life can help prevent it

How to prevent stunting?

There’s no simple solution to preventing stunting. However, focusing on the window of time between a mother’s pregnancy and when the child turns two, is key to ensuring healthy development. While the amount of food a child receives is a large piece of the puzzle, a diversified diet can be equally, if not more, important.

Practices for preventing stunted growth in children include: improved agriculture, proper hygiene and sanitation, better health care, and gender equity. Graphic: Aeri Wittenbourgh.

Practices for preventing stunted growth in children include: improved agriculture, proper hygiene and sanitation, better health care, and gender equity. Graphic: Aeri Wittenbourgh.

How Concern is helping

Concern Worldwide works with local communities to address the various causes of stunting. Through improved agricultural techniques, we help families increase and diversify food production. Nutrition-sensitive agriculture programmes, like RAIN, empower families to diversify the food they grow, and maintain small livestock that can produce meat, eggs, and milk. We also improve the access of poor households to markets to help them generate income from both agricultural and other production through our Graduation Programme. Improving gender equality is another essential objective, so we work to engage men in child care. In most of the countries where we work, we are building or improving water and sanitation facilities and training communities on good health and hygiene habits.

Moving forward without Concern

To ensure these crucial initiatives can move forward without our long-term support, Concern often partners with local governments to improve health and nutrition services, and promote maternal, infant, and child nutrition practices - led by community members.

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