The importance of breastfeeding to child survival and development is unquestionable. Early and exclusive breastfeeding produces remarkable benefits: it supports healthy brain development and protects against life-threatening diseases such as acute respiratory infections and diarrhea. In the long-run, it leads to increased intelligence, stronger performance in school and decreased risk of debilitating conditions like obesity, diabetes and childhood leukemia.
A new series in The Lancet accentuates the health and economic benefits of breastfeeding. While breastfeeding is not explicitly referenced in the new 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), The Lancet highlights that it is essential for achieving the various goals and building a better world for future generations.
Goal 1: No poverty.
Breastfeeding is associated with an increase of 3 to 7 intelligence quotient (IQ) points in children and adolescents, even after key differences in wealth and education are accounted for. This leads to better school performance and increases the likelihood of securing good jobs with good salaries, thereby helping to pull individuals and their families out of protracted poverty.
Goal 2: Zero hunger.
Every year, 3 million children die due to undernutrition. Breastfeeding could help avert many of these unnecessary deaths, since breast milk provides all of the nutrients that infants need. Without exclusive breastfeeding, we cannot achieve food security for infants 0-5 months. Breastfeeding both prevents malnutrition and decreases the likelihood of obesity as children grow.
Goal 4: Quality education.
The positive effects of breastfeeding are crucial for early childhood development and achievement in school. In a 30-year study examining the long-term consequences of breastfeeding in Brazil, participants who were breastfed for 12 months or more had higher IQ scores, more years of education and higher monthly incomes than did those who were breastfed for less than one month.
Goal 8: Decent work and economic growth.
Across all income levels, breastfeeding is associated with increased IQ. Higher IQ levels are the building blocks for greater academic achievement, long-term earnings and productivity later in life.
Goal 10: Reduced inequalities.
Breastfeeding levels the playing field so that every girl and boy can get the best start in life. Breast milk is free and interventions can reach communities with limited access to health systems and infrastructure, thus narrowing the gap in accessing health services.
Goal 12: Responsible consumption and production.
Breast milk is a natural and renewable food source that requires no packaging, storage, transportation or fuel, thereby contributing to environmental sustainability.
Ultimately, the advantages of breastfeeding are clear: evidence shows that breastfed children live longer and get sick less, and they are smarter than those who are breastfed for shorter periods or not breastfed at all. As breastfeeding is linked to global efforts in poverty reduction, health, education and environmental sustainability, among others, breastfeeding promotion in all countries remains an essential component to achieving the SDGs and building the best possible future.