Baby Laila*, 22 months old, is measured with a MUAC band in a Save the Children Health Assessment Centre in Leda Camp, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Laila* was admitted to a Save the Children nutrition center when she was found to be suffering from malnutrition. Thankfully, she is gaining weight and becoming healthy again.

4 Causes of Malnutrition in Children

As a concerned parent, you are sensitive to the nutritional needs of your child, and that includes avoiding risk factors that could lead to malnutrition. Understanding the major causes of malnutrition can help you form good habits when it comes to your own health as a parent, as well as the health of your child.  

Here, we breakdown four major factors that contribute to malnutrition in children:

  1. Poor qualify of diet
  2. Poor maternal health
  3. Socioeconomic status
  4. War and conflict 

What is Malnutrition?

Malnutrition, at its core, is a dietary deficiency that results in poor health conditions. We typically think of malnutrition as it relates to children not eating enough of the right foods. It can also occur when children eat too much of the wrong foods. Sadly, these combined contribute to more than 170 million children failing to reach their full potential due to poor nutrition.

Malnutrition in Children Can Be Caused by Poor Quality of Diet

Malnutrition can occur in children of all ages, but young children are the most vulnerable. The World Health Organization has stated that malnutrition is the single most dangerous threat to global public health[i]. They estimate that malnutrition is the underlying cause of 3.1 million child deaths each year and leads to lasting damage for millions of other children.

Malnutrition makes children more vulnerable to severe diseases. Chronic malnutrition or stunting—when children are too short for their age because they have not been adequately nourished, received inadequate care and/or live in unhygienic environments—can leave a devastating and permeant impact on a child’s physical and cognitive capabilities.

Memory with her son Joseph in a sling on her back, in Malawi.

Memory carries her son Joseph in a sling on her back in Malawi, where a shocking 39% of children suffer from stunting due to malnutrition. Joseph was born underweight but is now thriving.

Poor Maternal Health Can Also Cause Malnutrition in Children

The largest window of opportunity for a child’s health occurs in the first 1,000 days--from the start of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday. Mothers who are malnourished during their pregnancy can experience complications giving birth. Many children are born small because their mothers are undernourished.  Severely malnourished mothers can also have trouble breastfeeding their infants.

We know that breastfeeding for the first six months of a child’s life has health benefits that extend into adulthood. However, if a mother is too malnourished to breastfeed, these health benefits may not be passed on and a child can be at risk for malnutrition. This is especially true in developing countries.

Mothers like Memory* who live in developing countries can be unaware of the nutritional benefits of breastfeeding. Memory’s son was born underweight and kept falling sick, which caused her an enormous amount of worry and heartache.  With the help of Save the Children, through lessons and hands-on activities, Memory learned about the importance of nutrition – particularly the critical role of diet during pregnancy – breastfeeding and age-appropriate diets for babies.

Save the Children’s global health programs work to help maternal, newborn, and child health, which ultimately helps end child malnutrition. We work in many of the world’s poorest places, in the United States and abroad, to alleviate child hunger and prevent malnutrition. However, children living in developed countries are still at risk for malnutrition if they are born into poverty.

The Link Between Socioeconomic Status and Malnutrition in Children

Poverty is the number one cause of malnutrition in developing countries. Often times, families living in poverty lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Many communities do not have full-service grocery stores that regularly stock fresh produce.

Even if they do, fresh fruits and vegetables can be expensive. When fresh fruits and vegetables are out of reach for children, they can fill up on less expensive, less healthy foods.

Chronic malnutrition is becoming concentrated in countries with the fewest resources, where 1 in 3 children have stunted growth. Today, 9 in 10 stunted children, roughly 139 million children, live in low- and lower-middle-income countries.

Chronic malnutrition has also become increasingly concentrated in conflict-affected countries.

A woman holds her 11-month-old daughter  while she eats high nutrient peanut paste after being treated for Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) at a Save the Children stabilisation centre in South Sudan.

Rebecca holds her daughter Rachael* while she eats high nutrient peanut paste after being treated for severe acute malnutrition at a Save the Children stabilization center in South Sudan.

How War and Conflict Can Impact Malnutrition in Children

At least 240 million children live in countries affected by conflict and fragility.[iii] These children are at heightened risk of death before age 5, stunted growth due to malnutrition and so much more.

In South Sudan, for example, conflict and drought have led to devastating conditions for children. Nearly seven million people, or 61% of the population, face acute food insecurity. Unlike its regional counterparts Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, which are facing severe food insecurity due to worsening drought, South Sudan’s food crisis is directly linked to the ongoing conflict.[iv]

Save the Children in South Sudan is the lead health and nutrition provider in much of the region. We run 58 feeding program sites for infants and young children, all powered by the support of our donors.

The crisis in Syria has also shed light on the number of refugee children who are at risk of malnutrition. Children, who make up more than half of the world’s 22.5 million refugees[v], often go without healthy food, health care and an education.

Access to food and water has become a heartbreaking challenge— leaving thousands of Syrian children at risk for malnutrition. There are many ways to help Syrian refugee children. Your knowledge and support can make a world of difference for children around the world.

In Yemen, where children are growing up in the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, the indirect effects of the five-year conflict there are putting huge numbers of children at risk of death due to malnutrition.

Breaking the Cycle of Malnutrition in Children

Breaking the cycle involves working across various programs, not just nutrition programs, but also health, education, water and sanitation, livelihoods and protection. With our programs and your support, mothers are having healthy babies, children are growing up healthy and once they become adults, are contributing to their community and their society, passing on their gains to the next generation.

*Name changed for protection

Photo Credits: GMB Akash / Save the Children, Dowsett, Fredrik Lerneryd / Save the Children

[i] WHO

[ii], [iii] Global Childhood Report 2018

[iv], [v]  Save the Children

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