|© UNICEF/HQ93-0269/Roger Lemoyne|
|A breastfeeding woman smiles at her baby at the International Peace Maternity and Child Hospital, Shanghai, China|
In accordance with the Global Strategy on Infant and Young Child Feeding (WHO-UNICEF 2003), UNICEF’s overall goal in this programme area is to protect, promote and support optimal infant and young child feeding practices. The expected results are improved nutrition status, growth, development, health and ultimately the survival of infants and young children.
It is well recognized that the period from birth to two years of age is the “critical window” for the promotion of good growth, health, and behavioral and cognitive development. Therefore, optimal infant and young child feeding is crucial during this period. Optimal infant and young child feeding means that mothers are empowered to initiate breastfeeding within one hour of birth, breastfeed exclusively for the first six months and continue to breastfeed for two years or more, together with nutritionally adequate, safe, age appropriate, responsive complementary feeding starting at six months. Maternal nutrition is also important for ensuring good nutrition status of the infant as well as safeguarding women's health.
Exclusive breastfeeding is the perfect way to provide the best food for a baby’s first six months of life, benefiting children the world over. But breastfeeding is so much more than food alone; breastfed infants are much less likely to die from diarrhoea, acute respiratory infections and other diseases. Breastfeeding supports infants’ immune systems and helps protect from chronic conditions later in life such as obesity and diabetes. Suboptimum breastfeeding still accounts for an estimated 1.4 million deaths in children under five annually, according to the Lancet 2008 Nutrition Series. The most recent data indicate that only 36 per cent of 0-5 month olds in the developing world are exclusively breastfed, 60 per cent of 6-8 month olds are breastfed and given complementary foods and 55 per cent of 20-23 month olds are provided with continued breastfeeding. Among newborns, only 43 per cent started breastfeeding within the first hour after birth.
Adequate complementary feeding of children from 6 months to two years of age is particularly important for growth and development and the prevention of undernutrition. Childhood undernutrition remains a major health problem in resource-poor settings. Approximately one-third of children less than five years of age in developing countries are stunted (low height-for-age), and large proportions are also deficient in one or more micronutrients. That means they require the addition of nutrient dense, high quality foods in sufficient quantities to their diet along with continued breastfeeding. There is evidence that complementary feeding practices are generally poor in most developing countries, meaning that many children continue to be vulnerable to largely irreversible outcomes such as stunting and poor cognitive development, as well as to significantly increased risks of infectious diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia.
It was estimated that reaching over 90 per cent of infants with a package of interventions to protect, promote and support optimal infant and young child feeding practices can contribute to reducing overall child mortality by close to one fifth. Optimal breastfeeding practices, especially exclusive breastfeeding up to 6 months of age, has the single greatest potential impact on child survival, with the potential to prevent 1.4 million under-5 deaths in the developing world (Lancet 2008). A further 6 per cent or close six hundred thousand under five deaths can be prevented by ensuring optimal complementary feeding (Lancet 2003).
UNICEF's strategy and actions in support of infant and young child feeding, through its Medium Term Strategic Plan, underlines the importance of a multi-sectoral approach to improve health and nutrition, by taking evidence based packages of interventions to scale. The strategy is based on the 1990 Innocenti Declaration on the Protection, Promotion and Support of Breastfeeding, the 2005 Innocenti Declaration on Infant and Young Child Feeding and the 2003 Global Strategy on Infant and Young Child Feeding. UNICEF efforts recognize the rights of children and families and include proven activities for advocacy as well as support of government and non-governmental actions at three levels: national, health system, and community. Click on these links to read more on the issues and actions related to:
Community based infant and young child feeding
Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative
International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes & other legislative issues
HIV and infant feeding
Infant feeding in emergencies