Early childhood nutrition

Nutritious beginnings ensure healthier children.

A nurse guides a mother to provide breast feeding to a newborn child right after the birth as part of Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) at a Community Health Center in Ikauna, Uttar Pradesh.

Optimal nutrition in the first two years of life are critical to a child’s development. Early and exclusive breastfeeding and continued breastfeeding for two years or more, together with nutritionally adequate, safe, age-appropriate, responsive complementary feeding starting at six months, are critical to prevent stunting in infancy and early childhood and to break the intergenerational cycle of undernutrition. 

Optimal breastfeeding in the first year and complementary feeding practices together can prevent almost one-fifth of deaths in children under five years of age.         

Breastfeeding within the first hour of life is recognized as one of the most important actions for infant survival. Yet in India, only 56.6 % infants start breastfeeding within one hour of life. (Source:CNNS 2016-18).           

With frequent, on-demand feedings, babies do not need water or any other liquids even in hot climates. Mother’s milk is all they need for survival and optimal growth and development. Foods given to infants in the first six months of life do not improve growth and instead, are dangerous when they replace mother’s milk because they can result in frequent infections and poor growth and development.   

Exclusively breastfed infants are at a lower risk of diseases like diarrhoea and pneumonia, major causes of death among children under five years.  An infant who is not breastfed is more than 14 times more likely to die from all causes than an exclusively breastfed infant. (Source Lancet 2008)   

After six months, infants need both breastmilk and complementary foods to continue to grow strong and develop fully. Mother’s milk alone cannot give infants all the nutrition needed during this period of fast growth and development.

However, breastmilk remains an important source of nutrients in the first two years of life.  Therefore, it is recommended that, along with complementary feeding, breastfeeding should be continued until at least two years of age. Appropriate complementary foods are the solid, semi-solid or soft foods given with mother’s milk after six months.  

Appropriate and safe complementary feeding – ensuring that children are fed nutritionally rich complementary foods at the right age, at the right frequency and feeding hygiene practices are observed – is a major challenge in India.

A little less than half of Indian infants aged six to nine months receive complementary foods in addition to mother’s milk.  Less than one child in ten aged between 6-24 months is fed optimally, that is as per the recommended practices.

UNICEF continues to support the Government of India and state governments to deliver essential nutrition programmes for children. Multiple strategies are used to promote infant and young child nutrition with a focus on infant foods and feeding.  These include policy advocacy and communication strategies, improving counselling to caregivers on complementary foods and feeding through group counselling (feeding demonstrations at Anganwadis or early childhood development centres) and individual counselling through home visits, integration of infant and young child feeding into other programmes,  integration of responsive care interventions into infant and young child feeding packages  and research and monitoring activities on improving dietary diversity.
UNICEF supported the integration of infant and young child nutrition interventions into state onvergent action plans to provide assured funding for these interventions and ensure monitoring of progress. The Government has enhanced the budget provisions for food provided under the Anganwadi feeding programme. As result in a number of states foods like eggs and milk were added to the feeding programme.

In 2018 the Prime Minister also launched a national nutrition mission called POSHAN Abhiyaan. This multi-sectoral nutrition programme has resulted in enhanced budgets and accelerated actions to improve feeding of young children.

In all states implementing POSHAN Abhiyaan UNICEF provides technical support, support for the development of convergent action plans, communication and social/behaviour change campaign support and training of state and district resource groups to facilitate the implementation of incremental learning approach.