Malnutrition in children

Children sat on grass

What is malnutrition in children?

Malnutrition occurs from a lack of food or from eating a poor diet. A child is either not getting enough nutrients (undernutrition) or they are eating more than they really need (overnutrition). The early years of a child's life are the basis for their growth, both behaviourally and physically, which is why the correct intake of vitamins and nutrients are so important for development.

Malnutrition in children is a worldwide problem and the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that it accounts for 54% of child mortality globally, which is about one million children.

What are the signs of malnutrition in a child?

The symptoms of malnutrition in children may include:

  • Lack of interest in food or drink
  • Tiredness and irritability
  • Feeling cold all of the time
  • Gets sick more often and longer recovery
  • Lack of growth
  • Behavioural and intellectual development is slow
  • Learning difficulties

The three commonly used measures for detecting malnutrition are:

  1. Stunting – where the child has an extremely low height for their age
  2. Underweight – their weight is extremely low for their age
  3. Wasting – extremely low weight for their height.

Children with severe malnutrition are extremely thin but tend to have swollen hands, feet and stomach and they are very susceptible to infection.

What are the causes of malnutrition in children?

Malnutrition is the result of environmental or medical conditions. In the UK, malnutrition in children is caused by health conditions such as congenital heart disease, cystic fibrosis and cerebral palsy. Inadequate food intake such as lack of proteins leads to protein-energy malnutrition.

The main overall cause of undernutrition in children globally is poverty. Risk factors such as unsafe water, lack of hygiene, diseases and maternal factors play a role.

How is malnutrition in children treated?

In the UK, where malnutrition in children is often the result of a long-term health condition, hospital treatment is often required. A dietician can create a tailored plan to ensure that your child is getting the correct amount of nutrients. In some cases, they may recommend high energy and protein nutritional supplements.

In cases where children are unable to eat enough to meet their body’s needs, a feeding tube may be required. The child’s height and weight will regularly need to be monitored to make sure that their treatment plan with the dietician is working.

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