It is well-known that grandmothers have a key role to play in nutrition and child health in non-Western societies.
The considered opinion is that they should not be overlooked by health and nutrition programmes for women and children.
Community health specialist Dr Judi Aubel reviewed literature covering 60 different cultural contexts in 35 Asian, African and Latin American countries between 1995 and 2010, and came up with these findings.
The material studied included published studies in academic journals, and unpublished material from non-governmental organisations, international development agencies and universities.
The literature, in English, French and Spanish, came from a broad range of fields, including anthropology, nursing and public health.
"My review revealed that few non-Western programmes have actively engaged grandmothers in child and mother nutrition and health programmes, despite the fact that their involvement and influence in such matters is much more significant than conventionally assumed by policy makers and programme planners," Dr Aubel was quoted as saying.
"The extensive research findings I studied from rural and urban areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America reveal the decisive role of grandmothers, at both household and community levels, in all matters related to mother and child nutrition and health.
"The literature also reveals that, contrary to popular belief, grandmothers are not always set in their ways when it comes to nutrition and health. A few nutrition and health programmes have actively engaged grandmothers and shown them to be a valuable resource," she said.
Dr Aubel is co-founder of The Grandmothers Project, a not-for-profit agency that promotes the health and development of communities in African, Asian and Latin American regions.
In her review, 'grandmother' is used as a generic term referring to maternal and paternal grandmothers, aunts, elder co-wives and other senior women in the family who are involved in providing support and care for children and their mothers.
According to her findings, apart from providing care to children and mothers and giving health and nutrition advice, networks of senior women provide a collective influence on maternal and child nutrition-related practices, especially when women are pregnant or have recently given birth.
Dr Aubel says that despite the fact that grandmothers and other senior women are very involved in the nutrition and health of women and children, national and international policies and programmes rarely target or involve them.
She recommends that further research be carried out in non-Western cultural settings in order to understand the roles, norms, communication networks and decision-making patterns in household and community settings.
Health professionals and community workers also need to re-examine their perceptions of both culture and grandmothers, so that they view grandmothers as resources rather than obstacles. Health training curricula should be revised to provide more focus on how local families and cultural systems promote health and nutrition.
"My review clearly shows that there is a large gap between how those planning public health campaigns for non-Western settings view family dynamics and how they actually work in practice," said Dr Aubel.
The review was published in the January issue of Maternal and Child Nutrition.