The first two years of your little one's life are a uniquely special time that can have a very real influence on how they develop, grow and learn.
Have you ever thought someone daft? Now, imagine your own ten-year old, staring sheepishly at simple arithmetic, with eyes that suggest they haven't the slightest clue as to what is before them.
Despite your best efforts to see them get smarter at school – buying books and hiring private tutors – they haven't made even one a stride where their peers have made leaps. And you feel frustrated.
That is exactly where Tom and Monica Sasini found themselves in 2013. The couple's son, Andrew, had trouble comprehending as simple a sentence as 'My name is ...".
"We noticed that his level of understanding was very low compared to his peers," Tom says. "Even his younger brother (by two years) seemed to do better than him."
When Tom was in high school he recalls a fellow classmate struggling despite his interest and commitment to improving his performance.
"I thought at the time that he was merely a lazy slob. But now that this is happening to my son (who looks normal in every single way) I am tempted to believe there is something that we don't know yet," he says.
Andrew's teacher also found it weird as well but could not offer much explanation to the bewildered parents. The best he could offer were remedial lessons: Andrew was bombarded with three times as many lessons as everyone else in class.
The teacher assured the couple that Andrew would improve with time. But with their son still doing badly, Monica struggled to believe the teacher's reassurances. "I felt like he was miles behind his peers. He was really struggling. He could not name primary colors. And at times he got his counting mixed up," she says.
Then despair set it. Monica began cutting Andrew's play time. While other boys ran around outside, he was 'held hostage' with a book and other learning paraphernalia.
"It hurt me that I had to deny him that time to play. But I needed him to play catch up and take it seriously," Monica says.
To date, Tom and Monica are still grappling with their son's situation. Andrew has made progress but is still not where he should be.
When you look at Andrew there isn't anything obvious that suggests that he is less gifted in class. In fact, his witty charm and demure mannerisms; the way he easily stretches a hand out to strangers, suggest the opposite.
"There are many reasons why a child [who is largely regarded to be fine] can exhibit such symptoms," Dr. Supa Tunje, a pediatrician observes.
One of the reasons, she points out, could have occurred due to poor nutrition choices made by a child's parents in the first 1000 days of the child's existence: from conception to the time the child is two.
"The brain is affected by lack of proper nutrition during development," said Manaan Muma, a nutritionist at a nutrition meeting last year organized by the Scaling Up Nutrition Civil Society Alliance (SUN CSA).
Manaan, who at the time worked closely with SUN CSA, said that the first 1000 days – from conception, through pregnancy, and to the time a baby turns two – are critical in determining such features as height, brain development, the body's ability to fight off infections and mental acumen.
"At birth [assuming everything is fine and the baby's DNA is well coded] children have nearly the same chances of excellence," Manaan observes.
A child's DNA may code for the best outcome but environmental factors can lead to an unexpected turn of events. Manaan insists that parents have to be aware about what these factors are and how they influence a baby's development.
"Lacking proper nutrition in these critical days may therefore mean that one will never be able to perform at their level best in school," added the nutritionist.
Ideally, according to Manaan, a child's intellect, height, weight, and just about everything else are determined by proper nutrition in their early years.
Genetics, however, also play a major role in regulating every aspect of human life. "Genes allow for certain qualities; they provide a minimum threshold," she says.
But SUN CSA has collected statistics to prove the damage to children usually occurs when their mothers don't eat well during pregnancy, or when they don't feed them well-balanced (non-processed foods) meals two years after birth.
Dr. Tunje is a pediatrician at Adora Children's clinic in Kitengela. She says: "A lot of a child's development happens in the first 1000 days. Most importantly, this is the time the nervous system develops. This is the time the brain matures nearly to the same levels as that of an adult human being."
This flurry of development in these early months has both physical and physiological components. Both the body and the mind are developing, Dr. Tunje says. However, she adds, proper growth and development is also subject to environmental factors.
"Nutrients such as iodine and iron are critical during development. They shape cognition," she adds.
Malnutrition, says Manaan, causes stunting. The child's brain undergoes a somewhat similar result; a 'stunting' of some sort, so that the child fails to achieve their optimum intellectual capacity.
"Just like brain damage at birth lasts forever, the effects of poor brain development during these first 1000 days, are permanent," Dr Tunje says.
It should not be forgotten, that a baby's nutrition (and development) starts at conception. "What an expectant mother eats during pregnancy is paramount. It affects the baby in the womb," Manaan says.
Some conditions, Gladys Mugambi, head of nutrition at the Ministry of Health says, are caused by the lack of certain crucial nutrients during pregnancy. "For instance, having less folic acid in the early weeks of pregnancy causes neural tube defects [spina bifida] in babies," she said last month during the launch of a nutrition report.
Gladys also alluded to the importance of planning for pregnancy. That way, a woman can prepare with good nutrition, to ensure a healthy pregnancy, resulting in a healthy child with good chances at life.
Unplanned pregnancies may mean going for months without knowledge of the developing pregnancy – not forgetting the chances that an expectant mother may partake of alcohol and other substances which may interfere with the baby's development.
What You Must Do: How to maximize your child's potential during the first 1000 days
Having known that a child's body develops significantly within the first 1000 days you may be wondering what to do for your child.
"Proper nutrition is paramount," Dr. Tunje says.
Proper nutrition provides the right nutrients, and therefore the desired commands, to a child's DNA.
Think of it this way: A computer has software to make it behave in a certain way. However, it is only when one presses a button or issues a prompt that the computer can perform the expected action.
"A child may be programmed to be tall in their DNA. However, if they don't receive the right nutrition their true height won't manifest: they may become stunted," Dr. Supa says.
Essentially, the adage 'you are what you eat' takes a very real dimension during the nascent stages of a child's development.
And what is proper nutrition?
"It starts with exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months," Dr. Tunje says. "It is very important for every parent to observe this. The baby should breastfeed on demand. We can only excuse parents who can't perform this role for medical reasons. There is nothing as important as ensuring exclusive breastfeeding as per the recommendations of World Health Organization (WHO)."
Post six months breastfeeding should be supplemented with food: a balanced diet.
Kepha Nyanumba, a nutritionist with AAR Kenya, says a balanced diet contains all the food groups.
"Ideally, half of all the food one consumes should be vegetables. One quarter should be protein and the remaining quarter carbohydrates. This is merely a guiding ratio. It is important to note that fruits also make up part of a balanced diet," Kepha says.
Supplemented breastfeeding, adds Dr. Tunje, should continue until the baby turns [at least] two.
But that is not all. Children are also prone to debilitating infections and diseases which have the potential to affect brain development.
"What this means is that parents should make sure that their children get immunized as recommended," Dr Tunje says.
Now, unless a child is born with a genetic condition, and assuming parents have carried out their role in ensuring proper nutrition, there should not be any reason why a child should still exhibit below-par intelligence levels.