The leading medical journal The Lancet just released a new Series on Breastfeeding with remarkable new evidence on the health and economic benefits of breastfeeding. The Lancet found that breastfeeding could save 820,000 lives and add $302 billion into the global economy. The Lancet shows that breastfeeding lays the foundation for the healthiest start for all children, rich or poor, girl or boy.
Now more than ever we know what needs to be done to support and enable mothers to breastfeed. With such compelling evidence, all of us, including governments, donors, development agencies, the research community, the private sector and civil society need to step up. Breastfeeding can be dramatically improved in a short period of time.
Low and middle income countries such as Burkina Faso, India, Malawi, Peru and Zambia, and high income countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, have shown that it is possible to maintain high breastfeeding rates or increase rates in a short period of time provided political commitment, strong policies and programs are in place.
Here are some examples of what can be done:
- Providing lactation education, counselling, and skilled practical help for mothers in health facilities
- Using trained peer counsellors and mother support groups in communities
- Providing adequate maternity protection covering workplace policies such as paid maternity leave, allocated time for breastfeeding breaks and space in the workplace
- Adopting and enforcing the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes which regulates the marketing of breastmilk substitutes
Breastfeeding not only helps children survive in countries with high infant mortality, it also helps all children thrive. The Lancet finds that breastfeeding is the ultimate personalized medicine. A mother’s breastmilk transmits elements of her own microbiome and immune responses to her baby, with potential lifelong effects.
Breastfeeding is an essential part of early development and prepares children for a productive future. Across all income levels, breastfeeding is associated with an increase of 3 IQ points on average, which studies have shown translates to improved academic performance, increased long term earnings and productivity.
For mothers, breastfeeding reduces the risks of breast and ovarian cancer. The Lancet found that current rates of breastfeeding prevent almost 20,000 maternal deaths from breast cancer each year, and another 20,000 deaths could be prevented by improving breastfeeding practices.
What is more, breastfeeding has real economic value.
The Lancet found that the savings in health care costs associated with increased breastfeeding are tremendous – with reduced annual healthcare costs totaling $312 million in the U.S., $48 million in the U.K. and $30 million in urban China.
The costs of not breastfeeding are equally tremendous. The Lancet found that cognitive losses associated with not breastfeeding, which impact earning potential, amount to $302 billion annually. Low and middle income countries lose more than $70 billion annually, while high income countries lose more than $230 billion annually due to low rates of breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding is a powerful way to nourish babies, and grow the economy, but it’s not easy. Women need to have support to do so.
But women worldwide face many barriers to breastfeeding. They may receive inaccurate information from health providers, lack lactation support or counseling, face aggressive marketing of breastmilk substitutes or return to work soon after giving birth. These barriers make it exceedingly difficult to start breastfeeding, exclusively breastfeed for six months (with no additional liquids or food) and continue breastfeeding for two years or longer, as recommended by the World Health Organization and UNICEF.
Consequently, global breastfeeding rates have remained stagnant for the past two decades. Less than 40 per cent of infants under six months of age are exclusively breastfed.
Political commitment and investment in breastfeeding by governments, donors, employers and civil society is urgently needed to ensure the health of women and children and to shape a more sustainable future for all. UNICEF and the World Health Organization, in partnership with close to 20 organizations, are leading the charge to mobilize global action to raise political and financial investment to support breastfeeding. Together, we are working to remove barriers to breastfeeding and to give women the tools they need to make informed decisions to ensure their health and the health of their children for generations come.
Werner Schultink is the Chief of Nutrition at UNICEF headquarters in New York.