Zinc supplementation for improving the health and survival of infants less than six months old

Review question: does zinc supplementation reduce mortality, morbidity and increase growth in infants aged less than six months old?

Background: zinc deficiency is prevalent in the world. Adequate zinc levels are linked to decreased deaths, illnesses and improved growth in all populations particularly in developing countries. Zinc supplementation in older children has shown some positive effects.

Study characteristics: we searched for studies through January 2020 that enrolled healthy infants aged less than six months old and provided at least six months of zinc supplementation. We included eight studies that covered zinc supplementation compared with placebo, zinc and riboflavin compared with riboflavin only, zinc, riboflavin and B complex vitamins compared with riboflavin and B complex vitamins.

Key results and certainty of evidence: zinc had no effect on decreasing deaths or illnesses in children younger than 12 months. Moderate- to good-certainty evidence from three studies suggested an increase in weight-for-age Z-scores and weight-for-length Z-scores after zinc supplementation for six months compared to placebo only. Only one study could be analysed for zinc and riboflavin supplementation compared to riboflavin only, and the results suggested a decrease in wasting after 24 months of supplementation and an increase in stunting after 21 months.

Conclusion: with this evidence, we cannot strongly recommend clinicians to prescribe zinc supplements to children under six months of age. We also encourage the development of trials that will provide zinc as well as other micronutrients in this age group and for such trials to evaluate outcomes such as death, disease, side effects and growth.

Authors' conclusions: 

There was a significant positive impact of zinc supplementation on WAZ and WLZ after six months of intervention in infants compared to placebo. When a combined supplement of zinc and riboflavin was compared to riboflavin, there was a significant reduction in wasting at 24 months, but stunting at 21 months was negatively affected. Although included trials were of good-to-moderate quality, evidence that could be meta-analysed was based on a few studies which affected the overall quality of results. Regardless, there is a need for strong trials conducted in infants younger than six months before a strong recommendation can be made supporting zinc supplementation in this age group.

Read the full abstract...

Zinc is a vital micronutrient for humans and is essential for protein synthesis, cell growth, and differentiation. Severe zinc deficiency can lead to slower physical, cognitive and sexual growth, cause skin disorders, decrease immunity, increase incidence of acute illnesses in infants and children and contribute to childhood stunting. By estimation, 17.3% of the world population is at risk of inadequate zinc intake. Such nutritional impairment increases the risk of diarrhoea and pneumonia by 20%, as well as leads to a global loss of more than 16 million disability-adjusted life years in children less than five years of age. Not only does zinc deficiency affect lives, it adds to the considerable financial burden on depleted resources in countries that are most affected. By preventing or curing this deficiency, we can improve childhood mortality, morbidity and growth.


To assess the effectiveness of zinc supplementation for the promotion of growth, reduction in mortality, and the prevention of infections in infants less than six months of age.

Search strategy: 

We used the standard search strategy of the Cochrane Neonatal Group to search the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL 2018, Issue 4), MEDLINE via PubMed (1966 to 18 May 2018), Embase (1980 to 18 May 2018), and CINAHL (1982 to 18 May 2018). We also searched clinical trials databases, conference proceedings, and the reference lists of retrieved articles for randomised controlled trials and quasi-randomised trials. An updated search from 1 January 2018 to 29 January 2020 was run in the following databases: CENTRAL via CRS Web, MEDLINE via Ovid, and CINAHL via EBSCOhost.

Selection criteria: 

All randomised controlled (individual and cluster randomised) and quasi-randomised trials of zinc supplementation in healthy, term infants, less than six months of age comparing infant mortality, incidence of diarrhoea or respiratory illnesses, growth and/or serum zinc levels were eligible.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors screened search results (title and abstracts) and relevant full texts. Studies fulfilling prespecified inclusion criteria were included with any disagreements resolved by consensus. Extraction and analysis were then conducted. We used the GRADE approach to assess the quality of evidence as indicated by certainty in effect estimates.

Main results: 

Eight studies (with 85,629 infants) were included and five studies were meta-analysed, out of which four studies compared zinc with placebo, and one compared zinc plus riboflavin versus riboflavin. Certain growth outcomes after six months of intervention (Weight for Age Z-scores (WAZ) (standardised mean difference) (SMD) 0.16, 95% CI 0.03 to 0.29; three studies, n = 955; fixed-effect; heterogeneity Chi² P = 0.96); I² = 0%); change in WAZ (SMD 0.16, 95% CI 0.07 to 0.25; one study, n = 386; fixed-effect); (Weight-for-Length Z-score (WLZ) (SMD 0.15, 95% CI 0.02 to 0.28; three studies, n = 955; fixed-effect; heterogeneity: Chi² P = 0.81); I² = 0%); (change in WLZ (SMD 0.17, 95% CI 0.06 to 0.28; one study, n = 386; fixed-effect)) were positively affected by zinc supplementation compared to placebo. A single study reported no difference in the incidence of diarrhoea and lower respiratory tract infection with zinc supplementation. Zinc had no effect on mortality in children younger than 12 months.

When zinc plus riboflavin was compared to riboflavin only, significant improvement was observed in the incidence of wasting at 24 months (risk ratio (RR) 0.59, 95% CI 0.37 to 0.96; one study, n = 296; fixed-effect), but significant worsening of incidence of stunting was present at 21 months (RR 1.53, 95% CI 1.09 to 2.16; one study, n = 298; fixed-effect).