March 17, 2014 | By Roger Thurow

Guest Commentary - Why the First 1,000 Days Matter

This was originally posted on MomsRising Blog.

By Lucy Sullivan, Executive Director, 1,000 Days

Every mother has a story about the beginnings of her child’s life.  Many of them are joyful, some are heartbreaking, but all of them are important.  And almost all of them will have at least one thing in common: the desire to give their child the absolute best start to life.  Our instincts as moms to nourish, nurture and protect our children from the moment we become aware of their existence actually has a scientific basis.  Researchers have identified the first 1,000 days of a child’s life—from pregnancy through a child’s 2nd birthday—as a critical window of time that sets the stage for a person’s intellectual development and lifelong health.  It is a period of enormous potential, but also of enormous vulnerability.

Ensuring every child has the right start to life during these precious 1,000 days begins first and foremost with nutrition. The nutrition that we get from the food we eat early in life is a critical building block for the growth of our bodies, the development of our brains, and the health of our immune systems.  Quite simply, there is no other period of a person’s life when nutrition has as profound an impact as in the 1,000 days from a woman’s pregnancy until her child’s 2nd birthday. It is why poor nutrition—whether it’s called malnutrition, undernutrition, hunger or obesity—is particularly damaging to women, infants and young children.

As the Executive Director of 1,000 Days – an organization that champions better maternal and child nutrition around the world – I am intimately familiar with the statistics that convey just how devastating malnutrition is:
  • Malnutrition is responsible for almost half of all deaths of children under age 5; virtually all of these deaths are preventable.
  • Nearly 170 million children have had the growth of their young bodies and brains stunted by chronic malnutrition.
  • Women who are poorly nourished throughout their lives are at greater risk of complications during pregnancy and death during childbirth.
  • The damage caused by poor nutrition early in life can be irreversible.
But as both a new mom to a 15 month old and an expectant mom 6 months into my second pregnancy, these statistics are not just part of what I hope is a powerful argument to get people to pay more attention to this issue.  They now carry a very personal kind of resonance for me.

The author, Lucy Sullivan, enjoying her daughter’s first 1,000 days.

Luckily for me, my full-time job is to try to help the women and children behind these statistics, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to do the kind of work that I do.  I, along with many other committed advocates, try to bring the very real struggles of women trying to give their children the best start to life to the attention of political leaders, finance ministers, and anyone who can help bring greater attention to the need to do more on basic nutrition. If the faces of the women and children behind these statistics are what fuel my passion for this issue, then the knowledge of how to address the problem of malnutrition is what gives me hope.  It comes down to three basic things. First, make sure that during pregnancy mom eats a healthy, nutritious diet, takes prenatal vitamins, and gets the medical care she and her baby need.  Second, as soon as baby is born and for the next six months of baby’s life, breastfeed! Giving baby breast milk, and only breast milk, in his or her first six months is the most powerful protection against infection and disease that a child could get, and has a host of other benefits for both mom and baby.  Third, once baby begins his or her journey into toddlerhood at around 6 months, introducing solid foods that are packed with healthy proteins and fats, and vitamins and minerals, can help build strong bodies and brains.

Translating this knowledge into action is where so much of the work needs to happen. And it’s where moms everywhere can help. The first step is building awareness of the power of good nutrition during the critical first 1,000 days. The more people talk about how important it is to give kids everywhere the best start to life by making sure they have the right nutrition, right from the start, the more we can start to change the statistics on malnutrition. And as moms, the more we tell our stories, the more we can give voice to other moms who share our desire, but perhaps not our ability, to give their own kids the best start to life.

This month, 1,000 Days is hosting an online “March for Nutrition” to raise awareness about the critical role of good nutrition in the 1,000-days between a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s 2nd birthday. We invite you to share your stories and support the march by following #March4Nutrition.


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Outrage and Inspire with Roger Thurow - Am I About to Lose My Second Child, Too?

The latest podcast in our ongoing series with Roger Thurow. Hear how even the best nutrition projects can be undermined by bad water, poor sanitation and hygiene, and lousy infrastructure.  From northern Uganda, we hear a mother’s agony when her healthy, robust child suddenly falls ill after a few sips of water…unclean water, it turned out.

Roger Thurow on SDG 2.2

Roger Thurow sat down with Farming First to talk about the individual and societal consequences of malnutrition. 




Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

» Learn more.
» Order your copy of the book.


The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

Learn more »

The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

Learn more »