Preventing malnutrition in pregnant and breastfeeding women.
Women have distinct nutritional requirements throughout their life – especially before and during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, when nutritional vulnerability is greatest. Ensuring women have nutritious diets and adequate services and care is fundamental for the survival and well-being of mothers and their children.
Before pregnancy, women need nutritious and safe diets to establish sufficient reserves for pregnancy. During pregnancy and breastfeeding, energy and nutrient needs increase. Meeting them is critical for women’s health and that of their child – in the womb and throughout early childhood.
But in many parts of the world, the nutritional status of women is unacceptably poor. Far too many women – especially adolescents and those who are nutritionally at-risk – are not receiving the nutrition services they need to be healthy and give their babies the best chance to survive, grow and develop.
Women’s diets in many countries contain limited fruits, vegetables, dairy, fish and meat. During pregnancy, poor diets lacking in key nutrients – like iodine, iron, folate, calcium and zinc – can cause anaemia, pre-eclampsia, haemorrhage and death in mothers. They can also lead to stillbirth, low birthweight, wasting and developmental delays for children. UNICEF estimates that low birthweight affects more than 20 million newborns every year.
Poor nutrition during breastfeeding makes it more challenging for mothers to replenish their nutrient stores and meet their additional dietary needs.
Worldwide, women’s diets are influenced by various factors, especially food access and affordability, gender inequality and social and cultural norms that may constrain women’s ability to make decisions about their nutrition and care.
Improving women’s diets, access to nutrition services, and nutrition and care practices – before and during pregnancy and while breastfeeding – is critical to preventing malnutrition in all its forms. This is particularly true for the most vulnerable mothers and babies.
Nutrition before pregnancy
UNICEF supports programmes that make nutritious foods more accessible and affordable, and uses behaviour change communication to promote nutritious diets and shift social norms and practices. We also support large-scale food fortification programmes – such as salt iodization and the fortification of wheat flour, rice, and cooking oil with vitamins and nutrients – to improve the quality of women’s diets.
Nutrition during pregnancy
UNICEF promotes healthy eating, micronutrient supplementation (iron and folic acid or multiple micronutrients, and calcium), deworming prophylaxis, weight gain monitoring, physical activity, and rest to improve the nutrition of pregnant women. We also help provide nutritional counselling and support during pregnancy, in line with global recommendations.
Nutrition while breastfeeding
UNICEF promotes healthy eating, micronutrient supplementation (either iron and folic acid, or multiple micronutrients), deworming prophylaxis, physical activity, and rest to improve the nutrition of breastfeeding women. We also help provide nutritional counselling and support for breastfeeding mothers during postnatal care visits.
Nutrition of adolescent mothers
UNICEF supports programmes that provide specialized support and nutritional care to pregnant adolescent girls, breastfeeding adolescent mothers and other nutritionally at-risk pregnant and breastfeeding women. This includes supporting counselling services, micronutrient supplementation and the use of balanced energy-protein supplements where appropriate.
Innovations for maternal nutrition
UNICEF tests innovations for improving women’s nutrition during pregnancy and breastfeeding. As part of this work, we aim to shape markets to help increase access to low-cost, high-quality micronutrient supplements for women, and drive product innovation for nutrition. This also includes exploring innovative ways to deliver nutrition services to women and low-cost, field-friendly methods to assess micronutrient deficiencies in women.
Ten key actions to improve adolescent girls' and women's nutrition
Nutrition governance for adolescent girls and women
- Build bolder leadership to mobilize institutions, leverage resources and galvanize actions for adolescent girls’ and women’s nutrition more effectively.
- Harness data and evidence to inform policy and programme decisions and strengthen accountability for adolescent girls’ and women’s nutrition.
Food systems and nutritious diets
- Improve access to affordable nutritious foods – including fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish, meat and fortified foods – for all adolescent girls and women.
- Implement policies and mandatory legal measures to protect adolescent girls and women from nutrient-poor and unhealthy ultra-processed foods and beverages.
Nutrition services and social protection programmes
- Improve access to essential nutrition services for adolescent girls and women before and during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, including in humanitarian crises.
- Expand access to social transfer programmes for adolescent girls and women, including in fragile settings and humanitarian crises.
Nutrition and care practices
- Use multiple communication channels (print, broadcast, social and digital media) to reach adolescent girls, women and the general public with advice on nutrition and care practices.
- Strengthen the coverage and quality of counselling to help adolescent girls, women, and their family members make decisions and take action to improve nutrition.
Social and economic empowerment
- Implement gender-transformative policies and legal measures that strengthen the social and economic empowerment of adolescent girls and women.
- Accelerate the elimination of discriminatory gender and social norms to enable adolescent girls and women to realize their rights to food and nutrition.