New research shows that an investment of just $4.70 per newborn over the next 10 years would be enough to increase the rate of children under six months who are exclusively breastfed to at least 50 percent, the global target.
The result of this $5-per-child investment? Saving more than 500,000 children’s lives.
The research was conducted by the Global Breastfeeding Collective – a partnership of 20 prominent international organizations led by UNICEF and WHO.
Saving half a million children’s lives isn’t an outcome that any one government or organization can achieve alone. This year’s World Breastfeeding Week theme, “Sustaining Breastfeeding Together”, highlights the collaboration needed to establish a new norm for breastfeeding around the world. To do that, we need to ensure that everyone – from policymakers and governments to husbands and families of breastfeeding mothers – understand its unique benefits.
Breastfeeding isn’t just an investment in children’s nutrition and brain development; it’s an investment in human capital development. Let’s break that down a bit.
To start, breastfeeding saves lives by reducing deaths caused by diarrhea and pneumonia, two of the leading causes of child mortality worldwide. Breastfeeding is an effective (and cost-effective) method to give infants and young children the resilience to overcome illness.
Breastfeeding also boosts brain development and capacity. On average, infants who are optimally breastfed tend to have higher IQ scores than their non-breastfed peers. This results in improved school readiness and school performance and greater productivity and earnings later in life. When multiplied across a nation, the economic impacts are astounding.
Data from “Nurturing the Health and Wealth of Nations: The Investment Case for Breastfeeding” support these claims. The study found that inadequate breastfeeding is responsible for $1.63 billion in wage losses in Southeast Asia alone. According to The Lancet, global wage loss could reach $300 billion annually.
Country-level data show just how costly not breastfeeding can be for individual nations. India has a 55 per cent exclusive breastfeeding rate: this translates to $14 billion in annual losses to the country’s economy. In Nigeria, where the exclusive breastfeeding rate is a mere 17 per cent, the losses equate to 4.1 per cent of their GNI ($21 billion).
As the data show, even countries that have achieved an exclusive breastfeeding rate of 50 per cent or higher can prevent significant economic losses by re-doubling efforts to improve breastfeeding practices.
The financial toll isn’t just on national economies, it’s also on individuals and families. The Investment Case found that the cost of purchasing formula is significant: up to one-third of a family’s monthly earnings can be spent on breast milk substitutes.
There are varied reasons why families turn to formula instead of breastfeeding, but a major barrier that women face globally is a lack of paid leave or workplace benefits. When nursing mothers return to work early they have to make tough decisions about whether to continue breastfeeding, especially if their workplace doesn’t offer space or support through breastfeeding breaks and nursing rooms. Without essential workplace support, women are less likely to advance their careers and more likely to miss shifts; this lack of support affects personal and company finances, and in turn the economy.
But at the end of the day, we must remember that the number one reason to support breastfeeding isn’t just good economics: it’s doing what’s right. Every year, 20,000 women and over 820,000 children under five die as a result of inadequate breastfeeding practices.
Breastfeeding is a uniquely powerful practice that gives children the opportunity to grow and contribute to their families, communities, and economies. This is why breastfeeding is one of the most cost-effective and equitable interventions in global health and development.
Women are 2.5 times more likely to breastfeed when breastfeeding is protected, promoted and supported with strong policies and programmes. This World Breastfeeding Week, let’s strengthen the work we do to fulfill breastfeeding’s potential to save and improve lives everywhere in the world.
Victor Aguayo, is Associate Director, Chief Nutrition