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A REPORT CARD ON NUTRITION: NUMBER 4, MAY 2006 View Previous Editions>

One out of every three children is exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life in the developing world.

East Asia/Pacific and Eastern/Southern Africa are the regions with the highest levels of exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of life, while CEE/CIS and West/Central Africa have the lowest levels.

Exclusive breastfeeding

Exclusive breastfeeding

Human milk is the ideal nourishment for infants’ survival, growth and development. Exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of life stimulates babies’ immune systems and protects them from diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections – two of the major causes of infant mortality in the developing world – and improves their responses to vaccination. Particularly in unhygienic conditions, however, breastmilk substitutes carry a high risk of infection and can be fatal in infants. Yet only slightly more than one third of all infants in developing countries are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life.

Considerable variation exists across regions. The highest rates are currently found in East Asia/Pacific (43 per cent) and Eastern/Southern Africa (41 per cent), and the lowest in West/Central Africa (20 per cent) and CEE/CIS (22 per cent).13

But although percentages continue to be low across the developing world, trend data indicate that exclusive breastfeeding rates have improved: Between 1990 and 2004, this figure rose from 34 per cent to 41 per cent.14 In sub-Saharan Africa, the rate over the same period doubled, from 15 per cent to 32 per cent. West/Central Africa made noteworthy progress as the exclusive breastfeeding rate rose more than fivefold. African countries that have made major strides in exclusive breastfeeding since 1990 include Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Madagascar, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, the United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Exclusive breastfeeding rates in South Asia and the Middle East/North Africa also improved between 1990 and 2004, from 43 per cent to 47 per cent and from 30 per cent to 38 per cent, respectively. Rates remained roughly constant in East Asia/Pacific during this time. There were insufficient data to calculate trends for CEE/CIS and Latin America/Caribbean (regional trend estimates are provided only if the available data cover 50 per cent or more of births).


13  Breastfeeding levels are based on the latest available estimates for 111 countries during 1996–2004.
14  Breastfeeding trend estimates are based on a subset of 37 countries for which trend data were available, covering about 60 per cent of births in the developing world (excluding China). The sub-Saharan Africa analysis covers 59 per cent of total births in the region; the West/Central Africa analysis covers 68 per cent of total births in the region; and the Eastern/Southern Africa analysis covers about half of total births in the region. Trend estimates will differ slightly from estimates of present breastfeeding levels, as the trend analysis was based on data for 37 countries and present breastfeeding levels were estimated based on data for 111 countries. This applies to all regions.