UNICEF works to improve infant and young child nutrition, helping ensure every child has the best possible start in life

A mother holds her baby in her arms

The challenge

While there has been progress on child nutrition across Europe and Central Asia, that progress needs to be expanded and accelerated. Child nutrition remains low on most national agendas and is under-resourced. 

Disparities include higher levels of malnourishment in poorer countries and in Roma settlements.

There are geographic disparities across the region. Some of the poorer countries, including Tajikistan, struggle with acute malnutrition – a threat to children’s lives and a marker for life-long poverty and under-development. There are also disparities within countries: malnourishment in Roma settlements, for example, remains considerably higher than national averages, while obesity among children and adolescents is on the rise elsewhere. 

Stunting (children who are too short for their age because they aren’t getting the nutrition they need) has fallen by 57 per cent in the region since 1990, but it still affects more than 20 per cent of children under the age of five in Albania, Armenia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, threatening children’s development. Without accelerated progress on child stunting, the region may miss the global nutrition target of a 40 per cent reduction by 2025.  

Poor maternal nutrition before conception and during pregnancy and the first two years of life (known as the golden 1,000 days), threatens the chances of a safe delivery and a healthy baby, and can result in developmental delays that undermine a child’s potential. 

Breastfeeding is the best nutritional start for a child.

Breastfeeding gives children the best nutritional start in life, but only 30 per cent of infants in the region were exclusively breastfed until they were six months old in 2015 – a rate similar to that found in West and Central Africa.   

Micronutrient deficiencies continue to have lifelong consequences for children and women in the region. However, many countries have made progress towards Universal Salt Iodization (USI), a cheap and effective safeguard against the world’s leading cause of preventable mental disabilities. More than half of the salt consumed by households across the region now contains enough iodine to prevent iodine deficiency, up from only a quarter in 1999.  

The solution

UNICEF supports action to improve infant and young child nutrition across Europe and Central Asia, aiming to ensure that every child has the best possible nutritional start in life.

As part of our work to strengthen and improve health systems, we prioritize Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF), which includes exclusive breastfeeding and the timely introduction of complementary feeding (the introduction of other foods and liquids in addition to breastmilk for children aged six months to two years), as well as a strong focus on the nutrition of children in particularly difficult situations, such as emergencies and those living in families affected by HIV

We also support the few countries in the region that still face high levels of child under-nutrition, including stunting, to prevent and control this problem through targeted programmes and services.

UNICEF provides nutrition support in emergencies.

UNICEF steps in to provide nutrition support for children and mothers in emergencies. During Europe’s refugee and migrant crisis, for example, UNICEF has played a key role in the coordination and provision of nutrition support, while promoting the importance of child nutrition and reinforcing the abilities of partners to safeguard IYCF. 

We will continue our efforts to prevent and control micronutrient deficiencies in the region by supporting the enforcement of Universal Salt Iodization, as well as other legislation and programmes related to food fortification. Here, we work to devise and apply guidelines and standards on the prevention and management of micronutrient deficiencies among children, adolescents and mothers.

While there is plenty of evidence on the importance of good nutrition during early childhood, there is less information – and less attention – on the nutritional status of adolescents. Globally, but particularly in this region, UNICEF focuses on the prevention of anaemia, over-weight and obesity among adolescent girls and boys.

One innovative sub-regional partnership between UNICEF and academia aims to enhance the nutrition sector in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and raise the profile of nutrition in national strategies, policies and programmes. This partnership supports state-of-the-art knowledge on maternal and child nutrition to inform programmes based on what really works. It also aims to strengthen the skills and competencies of nutrition managers and leaders.