From birth to 6 months of age, feeding infants nothing but breastmilk guarantees them a food source that is uniquely adapted to their nutrient needs, while also being safe, clean, healthy and accessible, no matter where they live. Putting newborns to the breast within the first hour of life – known as early initiation of breastfeeding – is critical to newborn survival and to establishing breastfeeding over the long term. When breastfeeding is delayed after birth, the consequences can be life-threatening – and the longer newborns are left waiting, the greater their risk of death.
Globally, less than half of all newborns (48 per cent) are put to the breast within an hour of birth – leaving far too many newborns waiting too long for this critical contact with their mothers. This practice varies widely among regions. The prevalence of early initiation of breastfeeding in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (70 per cent) and Eastern and Southern Africa (64 per cent) is twice as high compared to Middle East and North Africa (34 per cent). Feeding newborns anything other than breastmilk has the potential to delay their first contact with their mother and can make it more difficult to establish breastfeeding. Yet, 1 in 3 newborns still receive food or liquids in the earliest days of life, when their bodies are most vulnerable.
An infant that is not exclusively breastfed could be at a substantially greater risk of death from diarrhoea or pneumonia than one who is. Moreover, breastfeeding supports infants’ immune systems and may protect them later in life from chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes. Yet despite all the potential benefits, only two fifths of infants 0–5 months of age worldwide are exclusively breastfed. South Asia has the highest prevalence of exclusive breastfeeding with nearly 60 per cent of infants being exclusively breastfed. In contrast only 26 per cent of infants 0–5 months in Northern America are exclusively breastfed.
So, what are infants under 6 months of age being fed?
Area graphs illustrate feeding patterns for infants between birth and 5 months of age. In the ideal pattern, almost all infants under 6 months of age should be exclusively breastfed. However, in a country there could be several non-ideal practices such as a substantial proportion of infants receiving water, who are thus, not exclusively breastfed as shown in the area graph below.
Access infant feeding area graphs for more than 100 countries and over 200 surveys on our interactive dashboard
As children transition from a breastmilk-only diet to a diet of breastmilk and solid foods, breastmilk continues to remain an important source of essential nutrients. However, only two in three children aged 12–23 months receive the benefits of breastmilk. Additionally, the prevalence of continued breastfeeding among children aged 12–23 months has remained relatively unchanged since 2010 – 69 per cent in 2010 and 66 per cent in 2020.
Disparities in the prevalence of continued breastfeeding exist not only between countries or regions but persist within countries as well. Across all regions, prevalence of continued breastfeeding is higher among children living in the poorest households compared to their wealthiest peers. The gap is widest in West and Central Africa where the prevalence of continued breastfeeding among children from the poorest households is nearly double compared to those residing in the wealthiest households.