Global Strategy: Breastfeeding critical for child survival
UNICEF and WHO call for increased commitment to appropriate feeding practices for all infants and young children
23 March 2004 | New York - Calling on governments to promote and protect breastfeeding, UNICEF and WHO today jointly launched the Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding. The document, developed over two years of global consultation, pinpoints the main problems affecting infant and young child feeding and identifies approaches to their solution.
"There is no better way than breastfeeding to make sure that a child gets the best start in life," said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy. "The strategy is an invaluable roadmap for governments to create supportive environments where women can make informed choices about feeding their children."
Breastfeeding alone provides the ideal nourishment for infants for the first six months of life as it provides all the nutrients, antibodies, hormones, immune factors and antioxidants an infant needs to thrive. It protects babies from diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections and stimulates their immune systems.
"Virtually all mothers can breastfeed provided they have accurate information, and support within their families and communities and from the health care system," said LEE Jong-wook, Director-General of WHO. "Governments should move swiftly and effectively to implement this important strategy."
Lack of breastfeeding - and especially lack of exclusive breastfeeding during the first half-year of life - are important risk factors for infant and childhood morbidity and mortality. These risk factors are compounded by inappropriate complementary feeding as infants grow.
"Exclusive breastfeeding in the first half-year of life and continued breastfeeding coupled with appropriate foods reduce the number of children under five who die from malnutrition," said Dr Lee. Malnutrition is associated with more than 50% of deaths among children under five.
The strategy calls for a dramatic increase in the number of infants who are exclusively breastfed. Currently, no more than 35% of infants worldwide are exclusively breastfed during even the first four months of life. Complementary feeding frequently begins too early or too late, and foods are often nutritionally inadequate and unsafe. Malnourished children who survive are more frequently sick and suffer the life-long consequences of impaired development.
"The long-term impact of poor feeding practices in infancy and early childhood include poor school performance, reduced productivity and impaired intellectual and social development," Bellamy said.
In addition to stressing the link between the health and nutritional status of mothers and children, the strategy addresses the challenges of feeding in exceptionally difficult circumstances, such as natural or man-made emergencies.
The strategy also highlights the issue of optimal feeding of the roughly 2.6 million children who are born to HIV-infected women each year. The absolute risk of HIV transmission through breastfeeding - globally between 5% and 20% - needs to be balanced against the increased risk of morbidity and mortality when infants are not breastfed. All HIV-infected mothers should receive information about the risks and benefits of various options and guidance in choosing the most suitable option.
The Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding, available in six languages, was presented by UN Under Secretary-General for Management Catherine Bertini on 23 March to the Standing Committee on Nutrition session at the UN. It was distributed 24 March during a session on Breastfeeding and Complementary Feeding and their contribution to achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals.