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Last update: Jan 2009

Overview of breastfeeding patterns

Proper infant feeding practices are key to child survival

Optimal breastfeeding of children under two years of age has the greatest potential for a positive impact on child survival of all preventive interventions, with the possibility of preventing 1.4 million deaths in children under five in the developing world annually1. Breastfed children have at least a six-times greater chance of survival in the early months than non-breastfed children. Breastfeeding drastically reduces deaths from acute respiratory infections and diarrhoea, two major child killers, as well as from other infectious diseases.

Current breastfeeding patterns, have improved significantly in some countries over the past 10 years but they are still far from the recommended levels in the developing world as a whole, indicating that their potential to improve child survival remains untapped. 

Only 39 per cent of all infants 0–5 months of age in the developing world are exclusively breastfed, and less than 60 per cent of 6- to 9-month-olds continue to be breastfed while also receiving solid, semi-solid or soft foods. Although global levels of continued breastfeeding are relatively high at one year of age (76 per cent), only half of infants are still breastfeeding at two years of age (50 per cent).

In 28 countries, more than half of infants are exclusively breastfed
Percentage of infants 0–5 months old exclusively breastfed (2000–2007)

Nearly 40 per cent of infants in the developing world are exclusively breastfed
Nearly half of infants in South Asia are exclusively breastfed
Percentage of infants (0–5 months) exclusively breastfed, by region (2000–2007)

Some sub-Saharan African countries made striking gains. There is a large disparity among regions. South Asia has the highest rates of exclusive breastfeeding at 44 per cent among infants 0–5 months old, while Central and Eastern Europe/Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE/CIS) has the lowest at 20 per cent.

Nevertheless, CEE/CIS countries made significant improvements. Rates doubled from 10 per cent to 20 per cent between 1996 and 2006. Exclusive breastfeeding rates in sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia and the Pacific also increased during this period, from 24 per cent to 32 per cent and from 27 per cent to 32 per cent respectively. Rates remained roughly constant in South Asia and declined in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Sub-Saharan Africa and CEE/CIS made the most significant improvements in exclusive breastfeeding
Percentage of infants (0–5 months) exclusively breastfed, by region 



1.  Black, R.E. et al., ‘Maternal and Child Undernutrition: Global and regional exposures and health consequences’, The Lancet, vol. 371, no. 9608, 2008, pp. 243-260.