By Avital Norman Nathman
August 1st — 7th is World Breastfeeding Week, a time to celebrate the many benefits of breastfeeding, while working to provide education and support to mothers, babies and families. The weeklong event is co-sponsored by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, the World Health Organization, and UNICEF. This year’s theme is “Breastfeeding: The Foundation of Life,.” According to the organizers, “…in a world filled with inequality, crises and poverty, breastfeeding is the foundation of lifelong good health for babies and mothers.”
We couldn’t agree more. Regardless of where a baby is born, breastmilk is optimally designed to meet children’s nutritional needs and to bolster their developing immune systems. Especially in developing nations, where a lack of clean water puts babies at risk of life- and health-threatening illness, scaling up breastfeeding could prevent over 820,000 child deaths, as well as 20,000 maternal deaths, each year.
Malnutrition and food insecurity are daily realities for many people all over the world, but for families with babies, breastfeeding provides the best chance for a healthy start. In order to achieve this outcome, global health organizations recommend early initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour of life, and exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life, whenever possible. In addition, they suggest continued breastfeeding for up to at least two years of age, introducing solid food (as complementary nutrition) at six months.
However, only 40% of infants under six months are currently breastfed exclusively, and only 45% of those babies continue to nurse up to the recommended two years. WBW’s key goal is to have at least 50% of mothers exclusively breastfeeding by 2025. A lot of changes and work must occur to increase these rates. Because of this need, World Breastfeeding Week highlights the ways breastfeeding can make a real impact:
2. Preventing Malnutrition in All its Forms
In low or medium income countries, babies who were breastfed had a 21% lower risk of death in their first year compared to infants who never breastfed. In fact, optimal breastfeeding offers various health benefits: it helps combat infectious diseases, decreases the frequency and severity of diarrhea, lowers respiratory infections, prevents dental cavities, and has a positive impact on intelligence.
Not only does breastfeeding have a quantifiable impact on a child’s life, but it also includes health benefits for women, like reducing the risk of breast and ovarian cancers, as well as hypertension.
2. Ensuring Food Security, Even in Times of Crisis
In many countries, there is a lack of access to clean water to mix with formula, leaving breastmilk to be the safest and healthiest way to provide nutrition early on. You would need over 500 gallons of clean water for just over 2 pounds of infant formula.
3. Breaking the Cycle of Poverty
Did you know that breastfeeding is one of the best investments in global health? For every $1 invested breastfeeding, $35 is generated in economic returns. In fact, not breastfeeding is associated with economic losses of $302 billion annually.
Even countries like the United States still have work to do when it comes to supporting breastfeeding. In the weeks leading up to World Breastfeeding Week, all 50 states have finally made it legal to breastfeed publicly.
How can you help?
The World Breastfeeding Week website includes a list of actions to take to help with this year’s theme. With their directives of “Inform, Anchor, Engage, and Galvanise,” there are multiple suggestions for helping promote and sustain breastfeeding. You can find various ways to discuss the benefits of breastfeeding, whether it’s based on nutrition or on lowering your carbon footprint.
We can work to ensure that breastfeeding is supported at all levels — from hospitals to the government. Governments can help by establishing policies that support nursing or pumping mothers. Insurance companies can improve their coverage of costs associated with nursing like pumps and visits with lactation experts. By working with organizations already on the ground, we can help them reach more people.
Look to see if there is a World Breastfeeding Week event happening near you. If you share about World Breastfeeding Week on social media — whether to add your story or to share the myriad benefits of breastfeeding — use the following hashtags #WABA #WBW2018 #breastfeeding #EBF6 #SDGs.