Milk consumption in the crucial first 1,000 days of an infant's life reduces stunting by as much as 10.4 percentage points among children in Bangladesh, according to a study conducted by International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
Bangladesh has low levels of per capita milk consumption-less than half of those neighbouring India-due to several factors like severe land constraints and historical unavailability of milk.
Milk production and consumption have long been strongly linked to child growth in European and African populations, but little research has focused on Asian nations.
Published recently in the journal, Economics and Human Biology, the study titled 'Household dairy production and child growth: Evidence from Bangladesh', authored by IFPRI's Derek Headey and University of London's Samira Choudhury, examined the impact of dairy consumption and production on child nutritional outcomes while comparing the influence on breastfeeding. IFPRI Bangladesh shared the findings on Sunday.
The study utilised the nationally representative Bangladesh Integrated Household Survey (BIHS) of rural areas over two rounds 2011/12 and 2015.
However, the study also finds some evidence that household dairy availability can have negative effects on breastfeeding in the first year of life.
Households that produce their own milk are 22 percentage points less likely to breastfeed their children in the first year of life, suggesting dairy-oriented nutrition strategies need to proactively promote exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months to prevent premature substitution into dairy.
Childhood undernutrition is increasingly recognised as a significant global health problem and a major constraint to economic development.
Undernutrition is associated with nearly 3.1 million childhood deaths and can impair cognitive and physical development in early childhood, as well as education and earnings later in life.
Nutritionists have emphasised that good nutrition in early childhood, specifically in the first 1,000 days of life, is the most essential for ensuring healthy growth for the entirety of one's life.
Researchers' analysis in this study corroborate that dairy consumption is most beneficial in this first 1,000 days period.
"Increasing access to dairy products can be extremely beneficial to the nutrition and long-term health of children 6-23 months of age when incorporated into a diet that includes good breastfeeding practices," said Derek Headey, Senior Research Fellow at IFPRI and lead author of the study.
He added: "Given almost half of children in rural Bangladesh are stunted, increasing dairy consumption among children and women of childbearing age should be a central priority for nutritional strategies in Bangladesh."
"Our results provide a further rationale for utilizing campaigns aimed at improving nutritional knowledge, especially the need to reduce the perception that dairy products can be a substitute for breast milk," he said.
"This finding is especially important as growth faltering appears to be particularly pronounced from roughly six months of age to 20 months of age, a period that coincides with the introduction of complementary foods, such as rice, that are often low in protein and micronutrients that aid growth and development," Mr Headey said.