Exploring the Nutrition Needs of Women Who Are Pregnant and Children from Birth to 24 Months

By Kellie Casavale, PhD, RD, Nutrition Advisor and Julia Quam, MSPH, RDN, ORISE Prevention Science Fellow, ODPHP

August is National Breastfeeding Month, and this year’s theme is Charting the Course Together. The focus is on using data to connect breastfeeding to a range of other health topics. An important health topic is the role that breastfeeding plays in infant and child health outcomes. Systematic reviews that highlight some of these key outcomes will be available in 2018.

Physician helping woman breastfeed
Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee

Filling the Gap
Up to now, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans hasn’t included comprehensive guidance for women who are pregnant or infants and toddlers under age 2. We know that good nutrition during pregnancy and in the first 2 years of life is crucial to normal growth and development and important for good health throughout the lifespan. There’s a need to review the science and provide more dietary guidance about these stages of development.

That’s the idea behind the Pregnancy and Birth to 24 Months project (P/B-24 project). The project originally began in 2012 and is a joint effort of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The project’s current scope looks at important public health topics for women who are pregnant and infants and toddlers from birth to age 24 months.

The P/B-24 project is not a formal part of the Dietary Guidelines development process. However, information from the P/B-24 project will be made public, and may be included in the scientific review for the next Dietary Guidelines. The 2020–2025 edition of the Dietary Guidelines will include guidance for women who are pregnant and infants and toddlers up to age 24 months.

Pregnancy and Birth to 24 Months Project
The current work of the P/B-24 project includes identifying topics of public health importance for women who are pregnant and infants and toddlers up to age 24 months. HHS and USDA decided on a small number of diet and health-related questions, drawn from a previous phase of the project, for the P/B-24 project to answer through systematic reviews. USDA’s Nutrition Evidence Library (NEL), in conjunction with HHS, is currently collaborating with nutrition experts to conduct systematic reviews for the questions.

USDA and HHS expect to complete these systematic reviews and make the results available to the public in 2018. Check out the full list of questions under review.

A Focus on Infant and Child Nutrition
All of the questions currently under review by the NEL will help to expand the understanding of how various aspects of nutrition in pregnancy or the first 2 years of life impact health outcomes — but some of the questions have particular relevance for National Breastfeeding Month.

These questions examine whether infant milk feeding practices — including whether or not babies are fed breast milk and the duration of breast milk feeding (exclusive or not) — are linked to babies’ development of food allergies, childhood leukemia, and chronic disease.

A Focus on Nutrition During Pregnancy and Lactation
Another question explores the links between maternal diet during pregnancy and lactation and the foods infants and toddlers accept and eat. The question will examine if diet during lactation impacts breast milk flavor, which may have implications for breastfeeding. This question will also examine if maternal diet during pregnancy impacts amniotic fluid flavor.

The Future
Looking forward, the next edition of the Dietary Guidelines will offer valuable guidance on nutrition for infants, toddlers, and women who are pregnant. The more we know about the dietary needs of these populations, the better we can empower women to improve their own health — and empower all caregivers to improve the health of their children.