“Governments should enact legislation and adopt policies to prohibit the inappropriate promotion of all commercially produced food or beverage products that are specifically marketed as suitable for feeding children up to 36 months of age, while continuing to adopt and enforce the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes,” read one of the policy recommendations of the report.
The conclusions come as part of the second chapter of UNICEF’s First Hour of Life report.
In the first chapter in July UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) warned of “slow” progress on improving rates of breastfeeding.
Now, just days before World Food Day, UNICEF has turned its attention to global practices of complementary feeding – the process of introducing other foods and liquids into a child’s diet alongside breast milk – for children aged six months to two years.
The report reveals a bleak picture.
One in five babies won’t have been fed any solid foods by the time they are 11 months old and half of children aged six months to two years are not fed the minimum number of meals for their age, which increases their risk of stunting.
A public not private health issue
“Too often, feeding children is considered a private matter within families, and the sole responsibility of mothers and fathers. However, children’s diets are a shared responsibility: no single household can do it alone,” the report said.
“Government leadership and contributions from key sectors of society – including health, agriculture, water and sanitation, social protection and education – as well as the private sector and families and communities, are needed to guarantee that nutritious food is available, affordable, safe and provided with care to all children.”
On the private sector’s role, UNICEF wrote: “The private sector and the food industry in particular must contribute to produce affordable, nutritious complementary foods and comply with legislation and policies in place to control inappropriate promotion of commercially produced foods.
“Governments need to hold the private sector accountable for complying with regulations and also tap into their ability to create innovative food solutions that benefit children.”
It said if appropriate complementary feeding practices were “scaled-up”, about 100,000 deaths of children under five could be averted each year.
‘Breast is best’ still on the agenda
Echoing July’s chapter of the report, UNICEF highlighted the importance of breastfeeding.
“We know that in rich and poor countries alike, breastfeeding saves lives and gives children the best start. While the evidence on the power of breastfeeding for lifelong health and prosperity is stronger than ever, too few children are benefiting,” it said.
“As children reach the age of six months, it is critical that they transition from exclusive breastfeeding to eating solid, semi-solid and soft foods alongside breastmilk to ensure they receive the nutrients they need to grow and develop.
“Yet many children are either introduced to these complementary foods too early or too late for optimal health and development. Most children are also not fed an adequate and diverse diet, leaving them without the vital nutrients required to reach their full potential.”
Policy changes on the horizon?
The UNICEF report comes just a few months after the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was tasked with looking at the ideal age to introduce complementary feeding.
EFSA’s report – due by the end of December 2017 – will update its 2009 opinion that concluded complementary feeding could be safely introduced between the age of four and six months.
This differed from advice given by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and backed by UNICEF, which recommended infants are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to “achieve optimal growth, development and health”.
From this point it advises infants receive nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods, while continuing to be breastfed for up to two years or beyond, to “meet their evolving nutritional requirements”.
While many European countries follow WHO’s six-month recommendation, others including Spain and Belgium fall in line with EFSA’s advice.
The pending EFSA update will decide what target age group can be marked on labels of processed cereal-based food and baby food within the context of a new legal framework for food for specific groups of the population, which came into force in July this year.