On Mother’s Day, UNICEF calls for the narrowing of “breastfeeding gaps” between rich and poor worldwide
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On Mother’s Day, UNICEF calls for the narrowing of “breastfeeding gaps” between rich and poor worldwide

NEW YORK, 10 May 2018 – The number of babies missing out on breastfeeding remains high, particularly among the world’s richest countries, UNICEF said in a new analysis released today. Worldwide, approximately 7.6 million babies each year are not breastfed.

The analysis indicates that even though breastmilk saves lives, protects babies and mothers against deadly diseases, and leads to better IQ and educational outcomes, an estimated 21 per cent of babies in high-income countries are never breastfed. In low-and-middle-income countries, the rate is 4 per cent.

“Breastfeeding is the best gift a mother, rich or poor, can give her child, as well as herself,” said Shahida Azfar, UNICEF’s Deputy Executive Director a.i. “As we celebrate Mother’s Day, we must give the world’s mothers the support they need to breastfeed.”

The analysis notes that babies are much more likely to be breastfed at least once in low- and-middle-income countries like Bhutan (99%), Madagascar (99%) and Peru (99%) than those born in Ireland (55%) the United States (74%) or Spain (77%) (see table). The United States alone accounts for more than one-third of the 2.6 million babies in high-income countries who were never breastfed.

However, within low-and-middle-income countries, wealth disparities affect how long a mother will continue to breastfeed her child, the data show. Babies from the poorest families have rates for breastfeeding at 2 years that are 1.5 times higher than those from the richest families. The gaps are widest in West and Central Africa and in Latin America and the Caribbean, where babies from the poorest families have breastfeeding rates at 2 years that are nearly double those from wealthier families.

Percentage of children age two years in low- and -middle-income countries who are breastfed, by wealth quintile and region*


“We know that wealthy mothers in poor countries are less likely to breastfeed, but somewhat paradoxically, we’re seeing indications that in wealthy countries, it’s the poor who are the least likely,” said Shahida Azfar, UNICEF’s Deputy Executive Director a.i.” These breastfeeding gaps across income levels are a strong indication that countries, regardless of the level of wealth, are not informing and empowering every mother to breastfeed her baby.”

Factors leading to higher breastfeeding rates vary. Countries like India and Vietnam have put in place strong policies to protect and promote breastfeeding. Others like Turkmenistan have very high rates of mothers giving birth in baby-friendly hospitals**. Almost all mothers in New Zealand and Sri Lanka give birth at a baby-friendly facility. Additionally, cultural and political contexts, including support from fathers, families, employers and communities, play a decisive role.

Through its global campaign, Every Child ALIVE, which demands solutions on behalf of the world’s newborns, UNICEF urges governments, the private sector and civil society to:

  • Increase funding and awareness to raise breastfeeding rates from birth through the age of two.
  • Put in place strong legal measures to regulate the marketing of infant formula and other breastmilk substitutes as well as bottles and teats. 
  • Enact paid family leave and put in place workplace breastfeeding policies, including paid breastfeeding breaks.
  • Implement the ten steps to successful breastfeeding in maternity facilities, and provide breastmilk for sick newborns.
  • Ensure that mothers receive skilled breastfeeding counselling at health facilities and in the first week after delivery.
  • Strengthen links between health facilities and communities, so that mothers are ensured of continued support for breastfeeding.
  • Improve monitoring systems to track improvements in breastfeeding policies, programmes and practices.

On Mother’s Day, recognized in May in over 128 countries, Every Child ALIVE is celebrating mothers and babies and their right to be supported through pregnancy, delivery and birth.


Download the report and multimedia here. For portraits of mothers and babies from Peru, Mali, Mongolia and Bangladesh by award-winning photographer Ilvy Njiokiktjien, click here.

For a full list of countries, click here.

The analysis is based on a variety of data sources from 123 countries. Data for low- and middle-income countries are from UNICEF’s Global Databases. Data for high-income countries are from a 2016 Lancet series on breastfeeding, except for Barbados, Oman, Qatar, USA and Uruguay which are from UNICEF. Only estimates from 2010 or more recent are presented for each country with the exception of China where the estimate is from 2008.

Notes to Editors:

In India, breastfeeding is a cultural norm and 95 per cent[1] children at some point are breast fed in their early years.  However, while over 79 per cent of women deliver in a health institution, less than half of those women (41.6 per cent) are breastfed within the first hour of life.  This is a missed opportunity to ensure that all children benefit from early breastfeeding – a life-saving intervention.  Children who are not breastfed within one of hour of birth have 33 per cent higher risk of neonatal mortality.

National Family Health Survey data indicates that 54.9 per cent children are exclusively breastfed and exclusive breastfeeding is on an average for 2.9 months. Use of water and other fluids is one the main reasons for discontinuation of exclusive breastfeeding.  

WHO and UNICEF guidelines highlight three major steps to ensure that a child is optimally breastfed. These include early initiation of breastfeeding – skin-to-skin contact of the newborns with their mother immediately after birth, and supporting mothers to initiate breastfeeding within the baby’s first hour of life, exclusive breastfeeding – feeding only breastmilk to infants from birth until 6 months of age, with no other food or liquids not even water and finally continued breastfeeding – breastfeeding for two years or longer, along with addition of adequate and safe solid, semi-solid or soft foods on completion of six months.

Globally, policies and programmes that support mothers at health facilities, home and work have shown to significantly increase breastfeeding rates.

Dr. Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF India Representative said,” Breastfeeding gives all girls and boys the healthiest start in life. It stimulates brain development, boosts their immune systems and helps protect them from chronic conditions later in life.”

“Breastfeeding is one of the smartest investments to boost human capital, stimulate economic growth and gives every child the same opportunity to thrive,” she added.


UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone. For more information about UNICEF and its work for children, visit www.unicef.org. Learn about the Every Child ALIVE campaign.

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For more information on UNICEF India and its work visit www.unicef.in. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook

For photos, please visit: https://uni.cf/2Kx4ivg

For more information, please contact :


Geetanjali Master,

Communication Specialist,

Tel: 91-981 810 5861,


Sonia Sarkar,

Communication Officer - Media

Tel: +91-981 017 0289,


UNICEF New York:

Sabrina Sidhu,

+1 917 4761537, ssidhu@unicef.org

* Analysis based on disaggregated data from 73 countries between 2010–2017 from UNICEF’s Global Databases.

** Baby-friendly hospitals or maternity facilities provide high-quality support for breastfeeding and comply with the Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding of the Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative

[1] National Family Health Survey – 4 (2015-16)


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