A midwife and nursing mother.

A midwife in Indonesia teaches a new
mother about breastfeeding, which can
protect against diarrheal infections.

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Key resources Other helpful websites

Breast milk is the ideal food for infants and is all they need for optimal growth and health during the first six months of life. Breastfeeding is considered a pillar of child survival; it provides nourishment, helps develop the immune system, improves response to vaccines, and prevents many infections, including diarrheal diseases.1 Because of the unique benefits of breast milk, it is recommended that infants continue breastfeeding for up to two years and beyond. Breastfeeding also provides health benefits for the mother.

It is estimated that 1.5 million children die each year because they were not breastfed, particularly not exclusively breastfed through six months of age. These deaths could be avoided by educating mothers and health workers about the vital role that breastfeeding plays in keeping infants healthy and by providing support to encourage appropriate feeding practices. In many developing countries, counseling and support have proven very effective for increasing rates of exclusive breastfeeding for up to six months, in turn reducing infant morbidity and mortality.

A study in Brazil associated formula feeding with a 14-fold increase in diarrhea motality for all infants and a 25-fold increased risk in infants less than two months old.

Malnutrition, caused by inadequate nutrient intake and disease, is a direct cause of 30 percent of all child deaths in developing countries and can result in a five-to-ten-fold increase in a child’s risk of death from diarrhea.3 Characterized by low weight and height for age, and low weight for height, malnutrition can be prevented through optimal infant and young child feeding—exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months, along with continued breastfeeding and nutritious, hygienically prepared complementary foods during the six to 24 month period. Feeding should continue during an episode of diarrhea, as well as increased feeding after the episode to counteract weight loss and prevent malnutrition. 

PATH’s Infant and Young Child Nutrition project works in developing countries to promote optimal infant and young child feeding practices—proven methods for reducing malnutrition and enhancing child growth and survival.

UNICEF works to protect, promote and support optimal infant and young child feeding practices as a means to improve nutrition status, growth, development, and health.

Key resources

Below are some key documents on breastfeeding and infant nutrition. Please also browse our list of other helpful websites for more resources.

Other helpful websites


1 Davis MK. Breastfeeding and chronic disease in childhood and adolescence. Pediatric Clinics of North America. 2001;48(1):125–141, ix.

2 Victora CG, Smith PG, Vaughan JP, et al. Evidence for protection by breast-feeding against infant deaths from infectious diseases in Brazil. The Lancet. 1987;2(8554):319–322.

3 The Lancet's Series on Maternal and Child Undernutrition. Available at: www.globalnutritionseries.org/. Accessed 23 February 2009.

Photo: PATH/Carib Nelson.