A mother breastfeeds her baby in northeastern Central African Republic. Less than 40 percent of infants around the world below 6 months of age are being breastfed exclusively, according to data by the World Health Organization Photo by: Pierre Holtz / hdptcar / CC BY

Breast-feeding creates a special bond between mothers and their children. It is also widely recognized as one of the easiest and most affordable ways to improve maternal and child health around the world.

Breast milk is the “perfect food” for infants, according to the World Health Organization. Ideally, infants should be put to breast within the first hour of their birth and breast-fed exclusively until they are 6 months old. Breast-feeding should then continue but be complemented with other types of food, the WHO says.

Unfortunately, only less than 40 percent of infants around the world below 6 months of age are being breast-fed exclusively, according to WHO data. This can be attributed to a combination of factors, including misinformation, cultural norms and lack of trained support systems for mothers.

A new index from Save the Children, the nonprofit group, provides a closer look at the state of breast-feeding in 73 developing countries with the highest risk of under-5 child mortality. The scorecard — part of the group’s latest report on the state of mothers around the world — assesses child nutrition in these countries based on the percentage of children breast-fed within an hour of birth, exclusively breast-fed during their first six months, breast-fed with complementary food in the following three months, and breast-fed up to age 2.

Malawi topped the scorecard. Some 95 percent of children in the country are being breast-fed within an hour of birth; 71 percent are exclusively breast-fed in their first six months. Save the Children gave Malawi a “very good” rating on early childhood feeding and described the country as an “African success story.” It is one of few sub-Saharan countries on track to meeting Millennium Development Goal 4, on reducing child mortality.

Madagascar, Peru, the Solomon Islands and Bolivia complete the top five countries in the index.

At the bottom of the index is Somalia, where only 23 percent are being breast-fed within the first hour of birth, 5 percent exclusively breast-fed in the first six months of life and 15 percent of children are being breast-fed and given complementary food from their sixth to ninth month.

Other countries where breast-feeding is relatively rare, according to the index, include Ivory Coast, Botswana, Equatorial Guinea and Vietnam.

The global health community has increased efforts over the past few years to promote breast-feeding and train local health workers. The U.N. Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health, adopted in September 2010, highlights breast-feeding as part of a “comprehensive, integrated package of essential interventions and services.”

Just how important is it to promote breast-feeding? According to Save the Children, hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved if more mothers breast-fed longer. Breast-feeding is also key to breaking a vicious cycle of chronic malnutrition that affects mothers and children around the world.

Read our previous DevTrivia.

About the author

  • Ivy Mungcal

    As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.