The First 1000 Days

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

The first 1000 days - an essential time for investment in healthier and more prosperous futures for your children

By Kirstin Sylvester RD, SA

Have you ever wondered what the term "first 1000 days" refers to? It is a unique window of opportunity from conception to a child's second birthday. This period is critical for growth and development. Did you know that a baby's brain grows more quickly in the first 1000 days than at any other time in their lives? This is vital because when a child receives poor nutrition in the first 1000 days, it can cause irreversible damage to the child's growing brain. Poor nutrition has a knock-on effect impacting the child's ability to learn in school and ultimately also their potential in adulthood. When I was a student dietitian at university, I vividly remember my first encounter learning about the first 1000 days. I immediately knew I would shape my career as a dietitian to advocate and educate others on the importance of these first 1000 days. In South Africa (SA), malnutrition in all its forms affects many of our population.

The UNICEF SA nutrition brief 2020 highlights that almost 3 out of every ten children are stunted. This means 30% of South African children will likely not grow and develop to reach their full potential impacting their ability to rise out of poverty.

For this reason alone, investing in the first 1000 days is vital to ensure every child can reach their full potential in life. And in turn, as a nation, we can break the cycle of poverty.

You may be wondering what I mean when I refer to investment?

Optimal nutrition from preconception up to the child's second birthday and beyond is a vital time for this investment. A well-nourished child is more likely to grow and develop optimally, leading to better school outcomes, social integration, increased productivity and lower healthcare costs. During pregnancy, a mothers' dietary intake influences a child's growth and development. A pregnant mother must look after her body and ensure she eats a variety of wholesome foods for herself and her growing baby.

Four Tips for mothers during pregnancy include:

1. Eat healthy foods

2. Stop consuming alcohol after a missed period

3. Stop smoking

4. Exercise regularly

Once born, the very best nutrition for a baby is breastmilk. The World Health Organisation recommends that mothers exclusively breastfeed for the first six months before introducing solids at six months of life. Continued breastfeeding with complementary feeding is recommended until two years of age and beyond.

Important reminders for exclusive breastfeeding include:

1. Breastmilk contains the perfect combination of all nutrients needed for a baby. This means the baby only needs milk feeds - no additional water as breastmilk meets the hydration requirements in the first six months of life.

2. Breastmilk continues to be nutritionally beneficial for a baby beyond six months of age.

3. Mothers should breastfeed on demand, meaning there is no time limit to breastfeeding. Instead, feeding should be as often and for as long as the baby would like to feed. (Look at babies' feeding cues to know when they are hungry).

At six months of age, solids should be introduced to a baby. The Road to Health Booklet (RTHB) is provided to mothers when a baby is born to document a child's growth, immunisations etc.

The RTHB offers excellent information on the introduction of solids.

Tips for introducing solids:

1. Include various foods with different textures, flavours and colours (Children should be eating the rainbow).

2. Feed slowly and communicate with a child during feeding.

3. Ensure good food safety and hygiene when preparing food.

As a dietitian, it is gratifying working with mothers and children during the first thousand days. Knowing that my advice and assistance can ensure optimal nutrition in this period and leads to lifelong benefits. For additional information or appointment enquiries, you can contact me at or

References 1,000 Days. 2021. Why 1,000 Days - 1,000 Days. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 March 2021]. 2021. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 March 2021]. 2021. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 March 2021]. 2021. Nutrition and health | First 1000 days. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 March 2021]. 2021. Nutrition and Health | First 1000 days. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 March 2021]. 2021. Nutrition and Health | First 1000 days. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 March 2021].

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