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UNICEF STATISTICS
  UNICEF Data: Monitoring the Situation of Children and Women
About this area This part of the website presents the most up-to-date data and analysis on the situation of children.

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Adopting optimal feeding practices is fundamental to a child’s survival, growth and development, but too few children benefit

 

Proper feeding of infants and young children can increase their chances of survival. It can also promote optimal growth and development, especially in the critical window from birth to 2 years of age. Ideally, infants should be breastfed within one hour of birth, breastfed exclusively for the first six months of life and continue to be breastfed up to 2 years of age and beyond. Starting at 6 months, breastfeeding should be combined with safe, age-appropriate feeding of solid, semi-solid and soft foods.

An infant that is not exclusively breastfed could be at a substantially greater risk of death from diarrhea or pneumonia than one who is. Moreover, breastfeeding supports infants’ immune systems and may protect them later in life from chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes. In addition, breastfeeding protects mothers against certain types of cancer and other health conditions. Adequate feeding from 6 months onwards can prevent undernutrition and decrease the risk of infectious diseases, such as diarrhoea and pneumonia. Yet despite all the potential benefits, only about two fifths of infants worldwide are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life, and only around two thirds are introduced to solid foods in a timely manner.  

LEVELS OF RECOMMENDED FEEDING PRACTICES

Analysis of data on feeding practices among infants and young children highlights the need for accelerated programming in this area. Globally, only two out of five newborns are put to the breast within the first hour of birth, and roughly the same proportion of infants less than 6 months of age are exclusively breastfed. The data show that about three quarters of infants are still breastfeeding at age 1. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that this practice continue until age 2 and beyond, yet only about half of young children aged 2 years are benefitting from it.

Global estimates for appropriate feeding of children aged 6 months to 2 years are currently limited to the timely introduction of solid, semi-solid or soft foods at 6 to 8 months. However, only two thirds of children are benefiting from this practice. This indicates substantial room for improvement, especially since the timely introduction of solid food represents only one of eight guiding principles for age-appropriate feeding.[1] Moreover, data from a limited set of nationally representative surveys suggest that the diet of this age group is only minimally acceptable in terms of food quality and frequency of feeding.[2]

Levels of recommended breastfeeding practices vary widely among regions. The share of infants that are breastfed within one hour of birth ranges from around 40 per cent in West and Central Africa and South Asia to about 60 per cent in Eastern and Southern Africa. In terms of continued breastfeeding at 2 years of age, levels range from 24 per cent in East Asia and Pacific to 75 per cent in South Asia. When data from five indicators relating to breastfeeding are analysed regionally, children in West and Central Africa appear to be at a distinct disadvantage, in contrast to their peers in Eastern and Southern Africa. 

Globally - only about two fifths of children benefit from exclusive breastfeeding (0-5 months)
Percentage of children worldwide put to the breast within one hour of birth; Exclusively breastfed (0–5 months); receiving solid, semi-solid or soft foods (6–8 months); and continuing to be breastfed at 1 and 2 years, by region, 2016

Source: UNICEF global databases, 2016, based on Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS), Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) and other nationally representative surveys. Data are from 2010–2015 with the exception of India (2005–6 or 2007–8) and China (2008).

Download the Infant Feeding Continuum for all regions

TRENDS   

Little improvement in the levels of exclusive breastfeeding has been seen over the last decade at the global level and in most regions. Least developed countries exhibited the largest gains, rising from 38 per cent to 50 per cent during the period from around 2000 to 2012. In contrast, Asian regions showed no significant change.

The proportion of infants in least developed countries benefiting from exclusive breastfeeding has increased substantially
Percentage of infants aged 0─5 months that are exclusively breastfed, by region, around 2000 and 2012

Notes: Estimates are based on a subset of 62 countries with available trend data (excludes Brazil and China due to lack of trend data). Regional aggregates are presented where adequate population coverage is reached. Rates for around 2012 may be different from those presented as ‘current regional/global estimates’, since the trend analysis is based on a subset of countries.

Source: UNICEF global databases 2014, based on MICS, DHS and other nationally representative surveys.

In West and Central Africa during the 1990s, the rate of exclusive breastfeeding increased from 7 per cent to 18 per cent. However, little progress has been seen in the last decade. Reinvigorated efforts are needed to regain past momentum in that region and to build on current successes among least developed countries.

Early successes in exclusive breastfeeding in West and Central Africa need to be revived
Percentage of infants aged 0─5 months that are exclusively breastfed, in regions with comparable trend data for around 1992, 2002 and 2012

Note: Based on a subset of countries with available data and presented where adequate population coverage is met.

Source: UNICEF global databases, 2014, based on MICS, DHS and other nationally representative surveys.

Noteworthy advances in a number of countries show that it is possible to make gains in the practice of exclusive breastfeeding, even over short time periods.  Twenty countries with recent data show either: a significant increase (15 percentage points or more) in the preceding five years, or high achievement (more than 50 per cent coverage), with evidence suggesting a modest increase or maintenance of that achievement in the preceding six years.

Advances in many countries show that rapid and sustained progress in exclusive breastfeeding is possible
Trends in the percentage of infants aged 0─5 months that are exclusively breastfed, in selected countries, 2005─2015

Source: UNICEF global databases, 2015, based on MICS, DHS and other nationally representative surveys.

DISPARITIES

In terms of early initiation of breastfeeding, the poorest 20 per cent of the population fare better than their richer counterparts in Latin America and the Caribbean and the Middle East and North Africa. The usual pattern of disparities (the poor faring worse than the rich) is found in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Overall, the poorest children in South Asia and West and Central Africa are at the greatest disadvantage globally in terms of early initiation of breastfeeding.

In three regions, poorer children are more likely than richer children to be breastfed within one hour of birth
Percentage of newborns put to the breast within one hour of birth, by wealth quintiles, 2008─2014

Notes: Estimates are based on data from 93 countries with available data by wealth quintiles. Dates are 2009-2014 with the exceptions of Brazil (2006), India (2007-08) and China (2008).

*CEECIS values exclude Russain Federation

Source: UNICEF global databases, 2015, based on MICS, DHS and other nationally representative household surveys.

 

Starting at 6 months of age, when infants increasingly start to rely on nutrients in other food for their optimal growth and development, the diversity of their diet becomes a key measure of how well they are eating and acts as a proxy for their micronutrient intake. Using available data from 38 countries, an analysis between low-income, lower-middle-income and upper-middle-income countries indicates large disparities in diversity of diet between country incomes as well as wealth quintiles within these country groupings. When it comes to dietary diversity, just over one third of the wealthiest are meeting the minimum requirement in low-income countries.

Even young children from the richest households in low-income countries are not getting a diverse enough diet
Percentage of children aged 6–23 months who receive food from four or more food groups, median values by income group and by household wealth quintile

Notes: Data are presented as medians for countries with comparable data. The values in brackets represent the number of countries included in the analysis for each income group.

Source: UNICEF global databases, 2015, based on MICS, DHS and other nationally representative sources, 2010–2014.

REFERENCES

UNICEF, Improving Child Nutrition: The achievable imperative for global progress, UNICEF, New York, 2013.

 

[2] WHO, Indicators for Assessing Infant and Young Child Feeding Practices, Part 3: Country profiles, WHO, Geneva, 2010.

 

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Infant and Young Child Feeding
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Publication

Improving Child Nutrition: The achievable imperative for global progress

This report builds on earlier findings on the impact of undernutrition by highlighting new developments and demonstrating that efforts to scale up nutrition programmes are working, benefiting children in many countries.

 

Journal Article

Breastfeeding in the 21st century: epidemiology, mechanisms, and lifelong effect

With a substantial development of research and findings for breastfeeding over the past three decades, we are now able to expand on the health benefits for both women and children across the globe. The paper describes past and current global trends of breastfeeding, its short and long-term health consequences for the mother and child, the impact of investment in breastfeeding, and the determinants of breastfeeding and the effectiveness of promotion interventions.

 

 

Notes on the Data

THE INDICATORS

The standard indicators for infant and young child feeding practices were developed in alignment with WHO’s Guiding Principles on feeding the breastfed and non-breastfed child. The aim is to use the guidelines to assess infant and young child feeding practices within and across countries and to evaluate progress in this programme area. While it is not possible to develop standard indicators for all desirable and recommended practices, 15 indicators (8 core and 7 optional) were developed and are presented in WHO’s 2008 publication, Indicators for Assessing Infant and Young Child Feeding Practices. Part 1: Definitions. These indicators are a culmination of six years of inter-agency work and are used to assess a subset of practices. 

This set of indicators provides i) an update of the 1991 WHO and UNICEF indicators on breastfeeding practices and ii) a broad set of indicators[2] to assess, for the first time, feeding practices in children aged 6 to 23 months.

Core indicators for infant and young child feeding practices

Indicator name

Definition

UNICEF global database exists?

Numerator

Denominator

Early initiation of breastfeeding

Children born in the last 24 months who were put to the breast within one hour of birth

Children born in the last 24 months

Yes

Exclusive breastfeeding

Infants 0─5 months of age who received only breast milk during the previous day

Infants 0─5 months of age

Yes

Continued breastfeeding at 1 year[3]

Children 12─15 months of age who received breast milk during the previous day

Children 12─15 months of age

Yes

Introduction of solid, semi-solid or soft foods

Infants 6─8 months of age who received solid, semi-solid and soft foods during the previous day

Infants 6─8 months of age

Yes

Minimum dietary diversity

Children 6─23 months of age who received foods from ≥ 4 food groups during the previous day

Children 6─23 months of age

Coming in the State of the World’s Children 2015 report

Minimum meal frequency

Breastfed children 6─23 months of age who received solid, semi-solid and soft foods the minimum number of times or more during the previous day

Breastfed children 6─23 months of age

Coming in the State of the World’s Children 2015 report

Non-breastfed children 6─23 months of age who received solid, semi-solid and soft foods or milk feeds the minimum number of times or more during the previous day

Non-breastfed children 6─23 months of age

Minimum acceptable diet

Breastfed children 6─23 months of age who had at least the minimum dietary diversity and the minimum meal frequency during the previous day

Breastfed children 6─23 months of age

Coming in the State of the World’s Children 2015 report

Non-breastfed children 6─23 months of age who received at least two milk feedings and had at least the minimum dietary diversity not including milk feeds and the minimum meal frequency during the previous day

Non-breastfed children 6─23 months of age

Consumption of iron-rich or iron-fortified foods

Children 6─23 months of age who received an iron-rich food or a food that was specially designed for infants and young children and was fortified with iron, or a food that was fortified in the home with a product that included iron during the previous day

Children 6─23 months of age

No

 

DATA COLLECTION AND REPORTING

Data for these indicators are collected though household surveys. With the exception of early initiation of breastfeeding, they are based on questions about liquid and food intake of children aged 0─23 months in the 24 hours preceding the survey. Standard questions and other practical methodological instructions for the core and optional indicators are available in the WHO document, Indicators for Assessing Infant and Young Child Feeding Practices. Part 2: Measurement. Large household survey programmes, such as MICS and DHS, are major sources of country-level estimates for seven of the core indicators as well as a subset of the optional indicators.  Other national household surveys, such as national nutrition surveys, often include questions used to report on these indicators as well. 

 

[2] These dimensions include continued breastfeeding or minimum milk feeds, appropriate timing of introduction of solid, semi-solid and soft foods, as well as optimum quantity and quality of foods consumed.

[3] Note that continued breastfeeding at 2 years (20─23 months) is an optional indicator, but is included in UNICEF’s global database.