Stunting in childhood: An overview of global burden, trends, determinants, and drivers of decline

Tyler Vaivada, Nadia Akseer, Selai Akseer, Ahalya Somaskandan, Marianne Stefopulos, Zulfiqar A. Bhutta

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

107 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Progress has been made worldwide in reducing chronic undernutrition and rates of linear growth stunting in children under 5 y of age, although rates still remain high in many regions. Policies, programs, and interventions supporting maternal and child health and nutrition have the potential to improve child growth and development. Objective: This article synthesizes the available global evidence on the drivers of national declines in stunting prevalence and compares the relative effect of major drivers of stunting decline between countries. Methods: We conducted a systematic review of published peer-reviewed and gray literature analyzing the relation between changes in key determinants of child linear growth and contemporaneous changes in linear growth outcomes over time. Results: Among the basic determinants of stunting assessed within regression-decomposition analyses, improvement in asset index score was a consistent and strong driver of improved linear growth outcomes. Increased parental education was also a strong predictor of improved child growth. Of the underlying determinants of stunting, reduced rates of open defecation, improved sanitation infrastructure, and improved access to key maternal health services, including optimal antenatal care and delivery in a health facility or with a skilled birth attendant, all accounted for substantially improved child growth, although the magnitude of variation explained by each differed substantially between countries. At the immediate level, changes in several maternal characteristics predicted modest stunting reductions, including parity, interpregnancy interval, and maternal height. Conclusions: Unique sets of stunting determinants predicted stunting reduction within countries that have reduced stunting. Several common drivers emerge at the basic, underlying, and immediate levels, including improvements in maternal and paternal education, household socioeconomic status, sanitation conditions, maternal health services access, and family planning. Further data collection and in-depth mixed-methods research are required to strengthen recommendations for those countries where the stunting burden remains unacceptably high. Am J Clin Nutr 2020;112(Suppl):777S–791S.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)777S-791S
JournalAmerican Journal of Clinical Nutrition
Publication statusPublished - 21 Jul 2020


  • Child
  • Height
  • Infant
  • Length
  • Linear growth
  • Nutrition
  • Stunting


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