Food and child Development

Globally, Children need the right foods at the right time to grow and develop to their full potential. The most critical time for good nutrition is during the 1,000-day period from pregnancy until a child’s second birthday.

In the first two years of life, breastfeeding saves lives, shields children from disease, boosts brain development and guarantees children a safe and nutritious food source. UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend that infants begin breastfeeding within one hour of birth, be exclusively breastfed for the first six months, and continue breastfeeding until 2 years of age or beyond.

At the age of 6 months, children need to begin eating their first foods. Young children should be fed frequently and in adequate quantities throughout the day, and their meals must be nutrient-dense and comprised of a variety of food groups. Caregivers should prepare and feed meals with clean hands and dishes, and interact with their child to respond to his or her hunger signals.

What, when and how children eat is more important before age 2 than at any other time in life. Yet, today, many infants and young children are not receiving the nutrition they need to survive and thrive.

Fewer than half of the world’s newborns are benefiting from the life-saving power of breastfeeding during the first hour of life. And only three out of five infants younger than 6 months of age are breastfed exclusively.

Children’s first foods too often lack diversity and are low in energy and nutrients. Globally, one in three children aged 6–23 months is eating the minimum diverse diet needed for healthy growth and development.

Young children’s diets are frequently comprised of grains – with little fruit, vegetables, eggs, dairy, fish or meat. Many are increasingly being fed sugary drinks and packaged snacks high in salt, sugar and fat.

Poor diets in early childhood can lead to deficiencies in essential vitamins and nutrients – such as vitamin A deficiency, which weakens children’s immunity, increases their risk of blindness and can lead to death from common childhood diseases like diarrhoea. 

Meeting children’s nutrient needs in early life can be challenging, and many parents face barriers to securing enough nutritious, safe, affordable and age-appropriate food for their children. These challenges are even greater during conflicts, disasters and other humanitarian crises.

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