Young children are not hungry just to eat
When one thinks of hungry children, their first thought isn’t usually, “good for them, they’re in the first weeks of life, let them eat,” but this is exactly the pattern observed by Indiana University researchers, according to a study published in the Lancet.
This hampers the brain development of young children and could lead to behaviour difficulties during school years.
Published in the journal, BMJ Open, the study collated the results of 120 teachers, surveyed them about their observations of pupil hunger and classroom attainment performance of the same children, and divided these results into three groups based on their detailed responses.
“Young children, younger than 2 years old, who have significant hunger become skilled at processing information, learning, and is the first set of children to make delayed learning gains during childhood,” explains Dr Katarzyna Falawska, one of the study authors and research director of EPIC InfoCentre, an NGO.
“So it’s really alarming to see children who experience hunger in the first year of life, failing to master basic skills and forgetting to speak in simple sentences. Children who have experienced hunger are less able to learn by being taught by their peers,” she adds.
“Our findings suggest that preventing acute nutritional deprivation should be a priority as it affects the short and long-term progress of children, including later in life, when it comes to early childhood development and school achievement,” she says.
“Our findings also highlight the importance of taking a holistic approach to improving the health of children during the critical first years, with nutrition leading to physiological, social, behavioural, and cognitive outcomes. We need to ensure that all children have access to adequate care in which to eat nourishing, nourishing foods,” explains Prof. Mats Nilsson, a researcher in this field.
“While most children have some nutritional problems at some point during their lives, this is the first time we’ve used such detailed data to take a look at how hunger affects their cognitive development in relation to long-term learning and attainment,” says Dr Nina van Eyck, who also took part in the study.
The research also found that only 40% of those pupils had identified themselves as being hungry before school started.
Key results from the study
In the study, children in the first three months of life who are identified as having chronic unmet nutritional needs were identified as not being able to learn by asking other children questions about their knowledge of a number and when they went to the library.
However, only 37% of the children noted during the survey met a minimum benchmark for not being able to learn by asking for something because they need it, and only 30% made that remark to other children in class.
Pupils who felt they were hungry were also found to experience poorer classroom performance at the end of primary school.
Eight percent of children were able to learn by name and recall part of a lesson book, as well as speaking in sentences on a sentence train. However, 55% could not do these things.
In the earliest grades of primary school, 82% of children were able to read only to an L level, and 26% were able to read to a level of class IV, which requires the comprehension of a large quantity of text.
The lack of ability in reading indicates a greater likelihood of being able to read nursery rhymes and nursery rhymes aimed at reading level for an L, while being able to read to L is seen as predictive of an ability to read to class IV.
Highlighting nutrition as a major factor in cognitive development, the study also found that the ability to learn more easily was greatest among children who could identify and manage hunger at some point during the day, followed by those who were able to regulate their hunger between meals.
Being able to cook with food is also linked to having higher cognitive development, as feeding a child properly allows it to develop good behaviour skills like self-care and self-regulation, even when they are hungry.
Encouraging more parents to tell their child that they are hungry should become a priority, especially in the early years, the researchers say.
“By speaking to a child about how hungry they are, you’re telling them to eat. By speaking to them about how hungry they are, you’re also helping them develop self-care skills, like self-regulation,” Dr Van Eyck says.
“This is particularly important in early years, when being hungry can stop them from eating.”
Source: EPIC InfoCentre