Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Human Development and Family Studies

Committee Chair(s)

Lisa K. Boyce


Lisa K. Boyce


Eduardo Ortiz


Spencer D. Bradshaw


Travis E. Dorsch


Heidi J. Wengreen


The first few years of life are viewed as a critical period for development. Children who do not grow and develop well in these early years can experience life-long negative implications. Many children under the age of five in Ecuador suffer from high rates of malnutrition, stunting (low height-for-age), and delayed cognitive development. This dissertation aims to better understand why children from Ecuador, specifically from the Amazon region, are experiencing such high rates of delayed development. Fifty children and their mothers living in the Amazon region of Ecuador participated in this research study.

First, interviews were conducted by an Ecuadorian member of the research team with mothers to better understand the types of diets they feed their children, as well as any strengths and barriers they face in feeding their children a healthy diet. Parents discussed how almost every child was breastfed for at least six months, a practice that is known to help reduce the risk of developmental delays in children. Mothers did not follow any routines when feeding their children. For example, they did not eat a certain number of meals per day or at a certain time of the day. Strengths parents talked about included knowing what should be included in a healthy diet, having children who were independent and could eat on their own, and being supportive and responsive to their children’s needs. Parents also discussed how they lacked knowledge of what foods they should be feeding their child, they did not always have access to healthy foods to feed their child, they did not have enough money to always feed their child a diverse diet, and that their child sometimes had illnesses or health issues that made it difficult for them to eat a diverse and healthy diet. All of these were related to the poverty these families experience, which in turn impacted how difficult of an eater their child was.

Next, I found a very high rate (32%) of children were stunted in growth, meaning that they were shorter than expected for their age. These children also had low levels of cognitive development. In fact, 74% had a cognitive delay, indicating that they could not understand, process information, and problem solve to the level that is expected of a child their age. Child gender, maternal education, and domestic violence were related to children’s physical growth (their stunting levels) and/or cognitive development. Female children had better growth than male children, and children whose mother reported lower levels of domestic violence also had better growth. Lastly, children whose mother had completed higher levels of education had higher levels of cognitive development. When thinking about the interviews with mothers and the results from questionnaires they completed, improving maternal education seems to be one of the most impactful and best ways to help improve these children’s physical growth and development so they can grow to their full potential.