Hesperian Health Guides

Poor Nutrition in Disabled Children


Poor nutrition or ‘malnutrition’ usually results from not getting enough to eat and is one of the most common causes of health problems. With its signs of weakness, thinness, failure to grow, and reduced ability to fight off illness, poor nutrition might be considered a ‘disability’ itself. It affects at least 1 out of every 6 of the world’s children, mainly those who live in poor countries.

In this book, we do not discuss the problems of malnutrition in detail, because they are covered in most primary care handbooks (see Where There Is No Doctor, Chapter 11). However, a special warning is called for.

illustration of the vicious cycle of malnutrition in disabled children.
The child who is physically and mentally slow is more likely to be neglected and not fed enough.
Not eating enough slows down both physical and mental development.

WARNING! Disabled children are often in greater danger of malnutrition than are other children.

a boy with a baby bottle in his mouth.
This 4-year-old with spina bifida has no difficulty eating any foods. Yet his family still treats him like a baby — complete with a baby bottle filled with a sweet drink — just because he is ‘disabled’.

Sometimes this is because the child has difficulty sucking, swallowing, or holding food. Sometimes it is because the family gives more food to the children who are stronger and more able to help with daily work. Sometimes it is because the family doesn’t know that a child with HIV needs more food than other children. Sometimes, however, it is because parents, although they treat their disabled child with extra love and care, keep bottle feeding him (with milk, rice water, or sugared drinks) until he is 3 or 4 years old or older. They keep treating—and feeding—their child like a baby, even though he is growing bigger and needs the same variety and quantity of foods that other children need.

To give a child only—or mainly—milk and sweet drinks after 6 months of age may keep the child fat. But he will slowly become malnourished. Milk and sweet drinks lack iron, so that the child may become more and more pale, or anemic (weak blood).

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Normal: Lips, tongue and fingernails have a reddish, healthy color. Anemic: Lips, tongue and fingernails pale. Lack of energy. Tires quickly.
CAUTION! It is important that disabled children get enough to eat. It is also important that they do not eat too much and get fat. Extra weight makes it more difficult for a weak child to move about. If the child is getting fat, give him less fatty foods and sweets. DO NOT LET A DISABLED CHILD GET FAT!
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REMEMBER: A disabled child needs the same foods that other children of the same age need.

This page was updated:27 May 2020