Early childhood nutrition
Preventing malnutrition in infants and young children.
Children need the right foods at the right time to grow and develop to their full potential. The most critical time for good nutrition is during the 1,000-day period from pregnancy until a child’s second birthday.
In the first two years of life, breastfeeding saves lives, shields children from disease, boosts brain development and guarantees children a safe and nutritious food source. UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend that infants begin breastfeeding within one hour of birth, be exclusively breastfed for the first six months, and continue breastfeeding until 2 years of age or beyond.
At the age of 6 months, children need to begin eating their first foods. Young children should be fed frequently and in adequate quantities throughout the day, and their meals must be nutrient-dense and comprised of a variety of food groups. Caregivers should prepare and feed meals with clean hands and dishes, and interact with their child to respond to his or her hunger signals.
What, when and how children eat is more important before age 2 than at any other time in life. Yet, today, many infants and young children are not receiving the nutrition they need to survive and thrive.
Fewer than half of the world’s newborns are benefiting from the life-saving power of breastfeeding during the first hour of life. And only three out of five infants younger than 6 months of age are breastfed exclusively.
Children’s first foods too often lack diversity and are low in energy and nutrients. Globally, one in three children aged 6–23 months is eating the minimum diverse diet needed for healthy growth and development.
Young children’s diets are frequently comprised of grains – with little fruit, vegetables, eggs, dairy, fish or meat. Many are increasingly being fed sugary drinks and packaged snacks high in salt, sugar and fat.
Poor diets in early childhood can lead to deficiencies in essential vitamins and nutrients – such as vitamin A deficiency, which weakens children’s immunity, increases their risk of blindness and can lead to death from common childhood diseases like diarrhoea.
Meeting children’s nutrient needs in early life can be challenging, and many parents face barriers to securing enough nutritious, safe, affordable and age-appropriate food for their children. These challenges are even greater during conflicts, disasters and other humanitarian crises.
Improving the quality of children’s foods and feeding practices in the earliest years of life is the cornerstone of preventing malnutrition in all its forms.
UNICEF early childhood nutrition programmes aim to prevent all forms of malnutrition by:
Protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding
UNICEF strengthens breastfeeding counselling and support, and advocates for maternity protection and other protective policies. To protect mothers and babies from marketing practices that undermine breastfeeding, UNICEF works to strengthen national legislation on the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and related World Health Assembly resolutions. UNICEF also provides specific support on infant feeding to mothers living with HIV and other infections, as well as those facing emergencies.
Together with WHO, UNICEF leads the Global Breastfeeding Collective, a partnership of prominent organizations working to increase political commitment to and investments in breastfeeding.
Improving first foods and feeding practices for infants and young children
UNICEF promotes access to nutritious, safe and affordable foods for children aged 6–23 months. Where nutritious foods are out of reach, UNICEF supports the use of multiple micronutrient powders and fortified foods to improve the quality of children’s diets. We help countries better regulate the labelling and marketing of commercially produced foods and beverages for children, and support caregivers to improve feeding practices through counselling and social and behaviour change communication.
Improving foods and feeding practices for children aged 3–5 years
UNICEF promotes access to nutritious, safe and affordable foods and healthy food environments for children in homes, day care, and early childhood development centres. Where nutritious diets are out of reach, we support the use of multiple micronutrient powders and fortified foods to improve the nutrient quality of children’s diets.
Providing micronutrient supplementation and deworming
UNICEF helps deliver vitamin A supplementation, deworming prophylaxis and iron-containing supplements to children under 5 in areas where nutrient-poor diets prevail, and where micronutrient deficiencies are common. We help align these services with global and national guidelines, and work with governments to provide micronutrient supplementation as part of routine health services for children.
Promoting healthy food environments
UNICEF helps governments adopt policies that foster healthy food environments, improve the availability and affordability of nutritious foods, and safeguard children from consuming unhealthy foods and beverages. This includes ensuring that such policies are free from commercial influence.