Hesperian Health Guides

Caring for Children

HealthWiki > New Where There Is No Doctor > Caring for Children

In this chapter:

A child happily eating
A child washing his hair
Nutritious food, cleanliness and sanitary conditions, and vaccinations against the common diseases of childhood, are like “bodyguards” that protect children from infection and keep them healthy.
A child getting a vaccination

Parents and health workers can learn more about nutrition in Good Food Makes Good Health, cleanliness and sanitation in Water and Sanitation: Keys to Staying Healthy, and vaccinations to prevent most sickness in children.

Especially for children, an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.

Nutritious food

Getting enough nutritious food is the key to a child’s growth and health. Good Food Makes Good Health is all about how you and your children can eat well, even when you have little money. It also explains the treatment for malnutrition in children and adults. You can give the best foods to babies and young children by following these guidelines.

A mother breastfeeding her baby

For the first 6 months

Breast milk has everything the baby needs and should be given as often as the baby wants to nurse: every 3 or 4 hours during the day, a bit less often at night. Do not give water, juices, or porridge until the first teeth come in at about 6 months. These can cause diarrhea in young babies.

See information on breastfeeding.

From 6 months to 12 months (1 year)

This is the age at which many children start to suffer from poor nutrition. To keep the child healthy, continue to give breast milk and start giving food several times a day too. Start with one or two foods, like a simple porridge or your regular main food with a little oil or fat added.

A woman helping her baby eat pieces of banana

Soon, add other healthy foods including:

  • Protein foods once a day or more: soft cooked beans or ground bean meal, eggs, dairy, or mashed, cooked fish.
  • Vegetables: well-cooked squash, peas, carrots, green leafy plants, tomatoes, or whatever orange or green foods are eaten where you live.
  • Fruits: small pieces of fruit such as mango, papaya, berries, or banana.

A young child eating with a bowl and spoon

After the first year

Continue to give breast milk for 2 years or more.

Also give the same variety of healthy foods an adult should eat: starch, protein, and vegetables and fruit. Children should eat 4 times a day or more. They need to eat even more often if they no longer breastfeed.

Girls need just as much food as boys. Girls and boys who get enough healthy food grow strong and healthy. Food helps the mind grow too — so the child can think, learn, and play.

Children should be like chickens: always pecking.

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Bottles and rubber nipples are not safe because they are difficult to keep clean. They often carry germs that cause diarrhea. If you need to feed the baby when the mother is away working, for example, give breast milk with a clean cup and spoon. Older babies and young children should never use bottles. Giving juice, porridge, or milk in bottles to older children bathes the teeth in sugar for long periods and is a common cause of tooth decay (cavities, caries). Children easily learn to drink from cups.

Cola, chips and sweets, crossed out

Junk food

Cakes, candies, chips, sodas, and processed foods made in factories are “junk foods.” They are filled with too much sugar, salt, fat, and chemicals, and not enough nutrition. Eating junk foods rots the teeth and leads to high blood pressure, diabetes, and other dangerous health problems later in life.

If junk foods are available, children will probably ask for them because they taste good. As parents and health workers, it is up to us to protect children from developing the habit of eating them. When a child asks for food, give him fresh fruit, nuts, yogurt, porridge, or something else nutritious and without added sugar. Teach children that nutritious foods are also tasty. Healthy eating habits will help children for their entire lives.

Children grow healthy and strong on real food — not junk food.

A girl washing her hands in a bowl with soap

Cleanliness and sanitation

Wash children’s hands before they eat and often throughout the day. Most diarrhea, colds, flu, and other sickness are passed by germs that spread from the child’s hands to mouth (and children always have their hands in their mouths!). Washing hands keeps the germs that inevitably collect on the hands from getting into the mouth where they cause disease. Washing often keeps kids healthy.

Cutting fingernails

Bathe children daily. Keep their nails short so dirt does not collect under them. Wash clothes and bedding regularly.

Children and adults need a safe, clean place to pass stool every day. Otherwise feces and the diarrhea-causing germs it contains will get everywhere. By building toilets for your family or with your neighbors or community, you will prevent diarrhea.

Water and Sanitation: Keys to Staying Healthy contains many detailed suggestions for improving sanitation and preventing diarrhea in children.

Vaccinations and medicines

Vaccinations protect children against many of the most dangerous diseases of childhood, like measles, tetanus, polio, and tuberculosis. It is easier, cheaper, and more effective to give a vaccine than to try to help a child who is sick or dying. Getting children vaccinated is one of the most important ways to keep them healthy.

See the Vaccines chapter for a list of recommended vaccinations and a schedule of when they should be given.

Be sure your children get all the vaccinations they need.

A boy helping his younger brother brush his teeth

Other ways to protect the health of children

  • Protect children’s teeth by brushing. Do not give them a lot of candies, sweets, or sweetened drinks. See more on these "junk foods".
  • Breastfeed. When you give other foods and drinks, use a clean cup or spoon, not bottles and nipples which are difficult to keep clean.
  • Do not let children who are sick or have sores, eye infections, scabies, lice, or ringworm share beds with other children or use the same clothing or towels. Treat children quickly for these infections that spread easily from child to child.
Children sleeping in a bed with a mosquito net
  • Use bed nets to keep out mosquitoes. Clean up any puddles or water that does not move so mosquitoes cannot breed. Cover open doors and windows with screens.
  • Keep pigs, dogs, and chickens — and the germs they carry — out of the house.
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  • If there is hookworm, children should wear shoes or sandals and not go barefoot.
  • De-worm children over 1 year every 3 to 6 months with albendazole or mebendazole.

This page was updated:05 Jan 2024