Early childhood nutrition

UNICEF is working in South Asia to improve the growth and development of infants and young children in the first critical years of life.

learning about nutrition and breastfeeding
UNICEF ROSA/2017/Brown

Challenge

From birth to a child’s second birthday, nutrition plays a critical role in determining how he or she grows, experiences illness and develops mentally. The high burden of wasting (28 million children) and stunting (62 million children) in South Asia indicates that far too many children will not develop to their full potential due to nutritional deprivation in early life.

Exclusive breastfeeding immediately after delivery until six months of age provides infants with nutrients and protects them against diseases. Over half of infants in South Asia are not breastfed from within the first hour of life, and less than two-thirds of infants benefit from exclusive breastfeeding.

Women and other caregivers need accurate information, skilled counselling and support to breastfeed successfully. While access to information and counselling is improving, there are often gaps in the availability and quality of support. Conflicting advice from health workers, community members, friends and peers can confuse mothers and undermine their confidence. It is important that those in a position to influence mothers are able to give consistent and correct advice and support.

Many vulnerable women, particularly those in the informal sector, are denied sufficient maternity leave or opportunities to continue breastfeeding when they return to work. They are forced to stop exclusive breastfeeding too early. From six months of age, children need frequent nutritious meals to grow healthily in addition to continued breastfeeding for two years and beyond. Some parents are confused by inappropriate and unethical marketing practices of companies and distributors that claim their breast milk substitutes (milk powders) are equivalent or superior to breastmilk. 

Data indicates that the quality of children’s diets in South Asia is poor. Less than half of children aged 6-23 months are fed sufficient meals a day and less than one in four eat the minimum number of food groups. Poor sanitation, lack of handwashing, and unsafe water exposes these children to infections that further deplete their young bodies of precious nutrients. Food is often withheld from young children when they fall sick - at a time when their nutrient needs demand even more nutritious food.   

Solution

We are working to help ensure that all infants in South Asia receive the full benefits of breastfeeding from the moment they are born and that their parents and caregivers have the knowledge, skills, and support to offer them sufficient nutritious complementary foods from six months of age.

Our primary focus is to improve nutrition in early childhood. Efforts to prevent malnutrition have the greatest returns if they target children during the 1000 days between conception and a child’s second birthday. Much of the damage caused by poor nutrition on growth and brain development during this period is irreversible in later life. 

UNICEF is a key player in assisting government ministries, health and nutrition managers, frontline workers, employers and communities in ensuring mothers and caregivers receive the support they need to breastfeed and feed their young children. This includes ensuring hospitals abide by the principles of the ‘Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative’ and support mothers to establish good breastfeeding practices immediately after delivery, and that skilled advice and counselling on breastfeeding is available to all mothers, wherever they live.

The health system has a key role in sharing information and counselling on appropriate complementary feeding practices to deliver vital vitamins and minerals to supplement diets. Family and community members have essential roles in extending support to mothers at home and in the community, and also need to be well informed to ensure that the advice and support they provide to breastfeeding mothers is appropriate. 

UNICEF is working to address the underlying causes of poor complementary feeding practices, including poor sanitation and hygiene, lack of availability of appropriate nutritious foods, and household poverty. We advocate for and assist governments to put legislation and monitoring systems in place to prevent the advertisement and promotion of all breast milk substitutes for children up to three years of age so parents are not confused by inappropriate marketing practices. We also argue for maternity protection measures so that all working mothers are able to take sufficient paid maternity leave, and are able to continue breastfeeding when they return to work.

Across our work, we generate new evidence on what works to improve breastfeeding and complementary foods and feeding, and to support governments across the region in using this evidence to inform the development of policies and delivery programmes that reach caregivers, particularly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. 

Resources

These resources represent just a small selection of materials produced by UNICEF and its partners in the region. The list is regularly updated to include the latest information.

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