In 1990, stunting affected 40 percent of children under five worldwide. Today, it affects 22 percent (144 million children). While we have made progress on a global scale, wide inequalities remain between and within many countries, and there is still much more work to be done for the most vulnerable populations.
Quick Facts on Child Stunting
Child stunting is associated with significant and lasting consequences for children and societies:
Stunted children are two to four times more likely to die before age five than their peers
Stunting is associated with delayed cognitive development and up to an 11-point reduction in expected IQ
At the societal level, stunting reflects limitations in a country’s ability to compete in the knowledge economy; it correlates with costs of as much as 13 percent of expected GDP annually
Child stunting reflects children’s well-being at both the individual and societal levels
Child stunting is identified and measured based on a child’s height. Children falling below a height threshold for their age are considered “stunted.” It reflects a child’s failure to reach his or her full growth potential and occurs during the first 1,000 days of life (from pregnancy through age two). In populations where stunting is common, nearly all children are likely failing in some degree to reach their full potential.
Stunted growth is significant not only because it implies a history of low-quality or inadequate dietary intake and repeated infection, but also because of the shadow it casts on a child’s future—the consequences associated with stunting last a lifetime and are largely irreversible. Stunting is correlated with lifelong reduced cognitive abilities and poor health. Compared with a healthy child, a stunted child is more likely to have poorer educational outcomes, earn lower wages, and have children who are themselves poorly nourished.
Multiplied by millions of children across a country, stunting contributes to reduced economic productivity and national growth and increased health costs. Countries with high stunting prevalence, also burdened by less educated and less healthy workforces, are inadequately equipped to compete in the knowledge economy.
Explore this diagram to understand the factors that can reduce childhood stunting.
Reducing the number of stunted children to 100 million by 2025
The world has made significant progress on reducing child stunting prevalence. Since 1990, when consistent data collection began, the number of stunted children under age five has declined from over 250 million globally (40 percent prevalence) to 144 million (22 percent) in 2020.
While this progress has been remarkable, it is not enough to reach the goal set by the WHO in 2012: 100 million stunted children by 2025 (a 40 percent reduction overall). Based on current trends, stunting is expected to affect 127 million children by 2025—more than 25 percent higher than the WHO goal.
What can we do to accelerate our progress?
Globally, child stunting has seen steady and significant decline over the past few decades and several Exemplar countries prove that rapid reduction is possible. Nevertheless, child stunting prevalence remains stubbornly high in low-resource settings across the world where stunting-related programming has been absent or ineffective.
The uneven progress to date in resource-limited settings reflects two key issues:
- Implementation challenges: The multifactorial nature of stunting makes it a useful indicator for overall health and well-being, but it also makes it challenging to address. Policy makers often struggle to identify which drivers of stunting played a key role in their geographic areas. Delivering the required multisectoral response to the children who need it most is both politically and practically challenging.
- Gaps in understanding: Important aspects of stunting are still not well understood. These gaps in our knowledge remain despite ongoing research on the subject.
- Additional contextual challenges: Several new and increasingly pressing challenges, including COVID-19 and the double burden of stunting and obesity, threaten to halt progress toward reducing child stunting. To sustain progress over time, the field must continue to invest in identifying and scaling up appropriate solutions for emerging challenges.
Exemplar countries employed a variety of strategies and tactics to reduce stunting prevalence.Use this tool to examine how Exemplar countries drove reduction in stunting prevalence.
Research on a variety of exemplar countries has given us an improved understanding of how to address stunting.
Exemplar countries employed a variety of strategies and tactics to reduce drive down stunting prevalence.
Use this tool to examine how exemplar countries drove reduction in stunting prevalence.
Our Stunting Partners
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Over the past two decades, many developing countries have made impressive progress in reducing undernutrition. We explore potential explanations of this success by applying consistent statistical methods to multiple rounds of Demographic Health Surveys for Bangladesh, Nepal, Ethiopia, Odisha, Senegal, and Zambia. We find that changes in household wealth, mother's education and access to antenatal care are the largest drivers of nutritional improvement, except for Zambia where large increases in bednet usage is the single largest factor. Other factors play a smaller role in explaining nutritional improvements with improvements in sanitation only appearing to be important in South Asia. Overall, the results point to the need for multidimensional nutritional strategies involving a broad range of nutrition-sensitive sectors.
Optima Nutrition is a quantitative tool that can provide practical advice to governments to assist with the allocation of current or projected budgets across nutrition programs. The model contains a geospatial component to determine funding allocations that minimize stunting, wasting, anaemia or under-five mortality at both the national and regional levels.The model has a flexible intervention set that includes a variety of micronutrient supplementation programs, infant and young child feeding education, treatment of severe acute malnutrition, treatment and prevention of diarrhoea, fortification of foods, family planning and malaria prevention interventions. Learn more here