Breastfeeding and complementary feeding

What and how we feed babies is critically important

Babies need the right foods at the right time to grow and develop to their full potential. The most critical time for good nutrition is in the brief 1,000 day period from the start of a woman’s pregnancy until a child’s second birthday.

Breast milk is the best food for children’s health and development during this critical window. It provides all of the vitamins, minerals, enzymes and antibodies that children need to grow and thrive.

Breastfeeding is a miracle investment. It is a universally available, low-tech, high impact, cost-effective solution for saving babies’ lives – but globally, it hasn’t received the attention it should. UNICEF is working to change this.

Breastfeeding is the closest thing the world has to a magic bullet for child survival. In developing countries, optimal breastfeeding – starting within one hour of birth, exclusive breastfeeding (no additional foods or liquids, including water) for 6 months, and continued breastfeeding until age 2 or longer – has the potential to prevent 12 per cent of all deaths in children under age 5.1 Exclusively breastfed children are less susceptible to diarrhoea and pneumonia and are 14 times more likely to survive than non-breastfed children2.

Breast milk is safe: it is always the right temperature, requires no preparation, and is available even in environments with poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water. In this way, breastfeeding guarantees babies access to a reliable, sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. Breastfeeding also supports healthy brain development, higher educational achievement, and lowers the risk of obesity and other chronic diseases.

Mothers also benefit from breastfeeding: it helps prevent post-partum hemorrhage, reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancers, and allows women to better space their pregnancies.

After the first 6 months of life, UNICEF recommends that children eat a frequent and diverse diet of nutrient-rich and hygienically prepared complementary foods in addition to breast milk. These foods are not only to fill a child’s belly: they must provide enough energy, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals to meet their growing needs.

The role of the caregiver is as important as the food itself: caregivers need to interact with the child, respond to his or her hunger signals, select appropriate foods, and prepare those foods safely.

What are the challenges?

Globally, breastfeeding and complementary feeding practices are poor. Only 38 per cent of the world’s (0-6 month old) infants are exclusively breastfed and most young children are not eating a minimally acceptable diet.

One of the biggest challenges is a lack of awareness on the part of national governments. This has, in turn, meant limited prioritization and financial investment for things like protective legislation, training of health workers, and counselling programmes to improve breastfeeding and complementary feeding practices.

Any mother will tell you that breastfeeding itself can be challenging: skilled support is crucial. However, many countries have a shortage of health workers trained to counsel and support mothers with both breastfeeding and complementary feeding. This needs to change.

Strong national policies and legislation – reflecting the International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes – are needed to combat the aggressive and often unethical marketing tactics of formula producing companies that undermine breastfeeding norms and practices.

Governments also need to better support working mothers to breastfeed. Adopting supportive national policies and legislation – such as paid maternity leave, breastfeeding breaks, and designated spaces – will help guarantee that breastfeeding and working are not mutually exclusive.

The lack of access to affordable, nutrient-rich foods is an ongoing problem for many families around the world. Too often, solid and soft foods are introduced too soon or too late, the frequency and amount of food offered is less than required for normal child growth, or the consistency or nutrient density of the food may be inappropriate for the child's needs.

Inadequate food and hygiene practices are related to a number of factors: lack of education of caregivers, beliefs and cultural taboos, the workload of the caregiver, poor access to resources, poverty, and food insecurity. The marketing of unhealthy food and drinks to children is also a barrier to good nutrition.

Feeding babies becomes even more challenging during emergencies. Caregivers often struggle to find safe spaces to feed their children, and emergency-related food shortages hit vulnerable populations the hardest. The uncontrolled and untargeted distribution of infant formula during emergencies can also undermine breastfeeding.

How is UNICEF responding?

Global Breastfeeding Advocacy Initiative – UNICEF and WHO are leading a global partnership to galvanize political commitment and investments to increase breastfeeding rates. Rapid progress is possible: some countries have already made dramatic gains in improving breastfeeding.

Protective policies and legislation – UNICEF advocates for national laws to protect breastfeeding and stop infant formula companies from using unethical marketing practices. UNICEF supports countries to enforce and monitor these policies./p>

UNICEF also works with governments to develop and enforce policies that provide time, space, and support for women to breastfeed. This includes maternity leave legislation to allow women more time with their babies before returning to work, supportive work-family policies, and policies to allow time and designated spaces for breastfeeding or expressing milk in the workplace.

Programme guidance – UNICEF provides global guidance on appropriate care and feeding practices. Some of these include UNICEF’s Programming Guide for infant and young child feeding, and most recently, guidance on infant and young child feeding in the context of Ebola.

Training and capacity strengthening – UNICEF and WHO have developed an integrated course on infant and young child feeding, including supportive supervision to build the capacity of health workers to better counsel and support mothers. UNICEF provides an online training course, in partnership with Cornell University on supporting infant and young child feeding programmes in developing countries. 

Baby friendly hospital initiativeThis initiative, led by UNICEF and WHO, helps mothers initiate breastfeeding after birth, which in turn supports its continuation after the mother returns home. A maternity facility can be designated 'baby-friendly' when it does not accept free or low-cost breast milk substitutes and has implemented 10 specific steps to support successful breastfeeding.

Community-based approaches – UNICEF works with communities to establish counselling opportunities for mothers to adopt appropriate feeding practices. UNICEF has produced a community-based infant and young child feeding counselling package to train community workers. Counselling is tailored to the contexts in which families live, providing concrete actions to change behaviors, improve feeding practices, and strengthen support networks. It is particularly important in places where the health system is weak.

Improving access to nutritionally adequate complementary foods – UNICEF provides caregiver nutrition education to improve complementary feeding. In settings plagued by food insecurity, UNICEF promotes the use of fortified foods and micronutrient powders to improve the nutrient quality of complementary foods.

Support in emergencies – UNICEF is on the front lines in humanitarian situations, providing counselling, working to establish safe spaces for infant feeding, and monitoring the distribution of infant formula.

Support on the feeding of HIV-exposed infants – UNICEF assists governments in HIV-affected countries to develop national strategies and policies on HIV and infant feeding based on the latest guidance and to build the capacities of health workers to support HIV-infected mothers to breastfeed safely.




1 Black, R. et al., ‘Maternal and child undernutrition and overweight in low-Income and middle-income countries’, The Lancet, vol.382, no. 9890, 3 August 2013, pp.427-451.
2 Black R. et al. ‘Maternal and child undernutrition: global and regional exposures and health consequences’. (Maternal and Child Undernutrition Series 1). The Lancet, vol. 371 No. 9608, January 2008, pp.243-60



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