Infant and Young Child Feeding

© 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, 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: a non-breastfed child is 14 times more likely to die in the first six months than an exclusively breastfed child. 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 800,000 deaths in children under five annually (about 13% of total child deaths), according to the Lancet 2013 Nutrition Series. Data from 2011 indicate that only 39 per cent of 0-5 month olds in low-income countries are exclusively breastfed.

Adequate complementary feeding of children from 6 months onwards is particularly important for growth and development and the prevention of undernutrition. Childhood undernutrition remains a major health problem in resource-poor settings. in 2011, over a quarter of children less than five years of age in low-income countries, or 165 million children under five years, 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.


UNICEF's strategy and actions in support of infant and young child feeding, through its new Nutrition Strategy and new 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 WHO-UNICEF, 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 four levels: national policy, health system, community and cross-cutting communication. Guidance on assessment, design, planning and implementation of a comprehensive IYCF strategy is contained in UNICEF's  Programming Guide on Infant and Young Child Feeding. Click on these links to read more on the issues and actions related to:

Community based infant and young child feeding
Complementary feeding
Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative
International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes & other legislative issues
HIV and infant feeding
Infant feeding in emergencies




31 July 2008: UNICEF correspondent Elizabeth Kiem reports on the role of support groups in promoting exclusive breastfeeding.  

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