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 PAHO TODAY          The Newsletter of the Pan American Health Organization   -    August 2006


New Child Growth Standards

The World Health Organization (WHO) has developed new international Child Growth Standards that show how young children should grow no matter where they live or what ethnic background they come from.


Unlike older versions, the recently published guidelines are based on the growth patterns of children fed according to WHO recommendations on infant breastfeeding.

The standards are based on data that show that young children all over the world will grow in a similar pattern and to within the same height and weight range if they are breastfed and given good nutrition and health care early in life.

"From infancy through age 5, children's growth is much more influenced by things like breastfeeding, good nutrition, health care, and other environmental factors than by genetics or ethnicity,” says Chessa Lutter, regional advisor on food and nutrition at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). "No matter what country or ethnic group they're from, children will grow in a similar way as long as they are properly fed and have good health conditions."

Standards previously used by pediatricians around the world were based on the growth patterns of a limited group: primarily U.S. children, most of whom were formula-fed as babies. These standards were inconsistent with WHO recommendations that babies be exclusively breastfed for their first six months of life. When assessed using these older standards, breastfed children appeared to grow faster than average during their first three months, but more slowly thereafter. They also tended to be taller and thinner compared with babies in the mostly formula-fed group.

To develop standards that would be more consistent with WHO feeding recommendations and more relevant to children around the world, researchers studied the growth patterns of more than 8,000 children under age 6 from Brazil, Ghana, India, Norway, Oman, and the United States. All the children were deemed to have optimal conditions for good growth, including being breastfed exclusively for the first four-to-six months, having good medical care, and living in smoke-free households.

The resulting WHO standards have been incorporated into age-based charts for height, weight, and body mass index (BMI) that are intended for use by parents, doctors, and public health officials. Using the charts, caregivers can assess whether a child is too short or underweight, overweight, or obese for its age, and recommend steps to address the problem.

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