April 27, 2006

UN Child Study Says First Five Years are Key

GENEVA -- Children's growth is influenced more by environmental factors than genetics up to the age of five, the World Health Organization said on Thursday.

The United Nations agency found that, despite differences among individual children, the average potential size of youngsters worldwide lies in a narrow range.

"Children from India, Norway and Brazil all show similar growth patterns when provided healthy growth conditions in early life," the WHO said in issuing its new child growth standards.

"Differences in children's growth to age five are more influenced by nutrition, feeding practices, environment, and healthcare than genetics or ethnicity," it said.

To compile the global study, researchers tracked more than 8,000 children in Brazil, Ghana, India, Norway, Oman, and the United States from birth to age five.

Children selected were deemed to live in "an optimal environment for proper growth," where infants are breastfed and young children have access to good nutrition and quality health care, and mothers do not smoke.

The new WHO growth charts include universal guidance for parents and health workers on healthy ranges of weight-for-age, height-for-age, and weight-for-height.

It also includes six key motor development milestones for activities like sitting, standing and walking.

"The new standards are important for parents, health professionals and other caregivers to assess the growth and development of children at the individual and population level," said Cutberto Garza, director of the U.N. University food and nutrition program.

The British-based parenting charity National Childbirth Trust praised the growth charts for emphasizing breast feeding.

"These new growth standards should ensure more babies benefit from breastmilk for longer and we look forward to their implementation," it said in a statement.