A study on breastfeeding has resulted in a call for greater investment and better programs to support the practice in both rich and poor countries.
The Lancet Breastfeeding Series found that about 820,000 child deaths could be prevented annually by improving breastfeeding rates. In addition, the series says approximately 20,000 breast cancer deaths among women could be prevented each year by increased breastfeeding.
The series also says that failure to breastfeed could lower a child’s cognitive ability, which is the ability to learn and process information and speak about it.
The study says that globally, the costs of lower cognitive ability associated with not breastfeeding amount to more than $300 billion each year and that breastfeeding is more common in poor than rich countries.
“The main findings from that are that there’s been relatively little change in breastfeeding patterns over the past 20 years,” said Dr. Nigel Rollins of the Department of Maternal, Newborn Child and Adolescent Health at the World Health Organization, who co-led the study.
He said breastfeeding rates during the first six months of a child’s life have only increased by about 11 percentage points in the last 15-20 years. Up to about 37 percent of women globally, exclusively breastfeed in the first six months. WHO and all U.N. organizations say it is the ideal practice for all women.
“A second indicator of breastfeeding practices, what we refer to as continued breastfeeding, and here we find that this varies a little bit by the income setting. In low- and middle-income countries up to 12 months, the numbers range between 60 and 80 percent . It’s not consistent across all lower- to middle-income countries, but the rates are certainly a lot less in high income countries,” said Rollins.
For example, Rwanda has a very high of 90 percent compared a very low rate in Britain.
Additional research on breastfeeding worldwide found that women do not have the support they need to nurse their babies. It found limited or nonexistent maternity leave, gaps in knowledge among health care providers and lack of strong support systems among family and community.
The Lancet BreastFeeding Series said, “Increasing breastfeeding rates to 90 percent in the U.S., China, and Brazil and to 45 percent in the U.K. would cut treatment costs of common childhood illness and save millions of dollars in health care for children."
The papers also highlight the health benefits for the mothers who nurse their babies.
“For women, the longer the duration of breastfeeding and the cumulative period of breastfeeding over several pregnancies, decreases the risk of invasive breast cancer. So for every cumulative year of breastfeeding by a woman, it decreases her likelihood of invasive breast cancer by 6 percent. And there’s also protection against ovarian cancer,” said Rollins.
He said the study also confirmed that breastfeeding improves child-spacing.
“And that’s a major benefit for women actually, and it also benefits children. Wider birth spacing actually helps children to grow better."
Another challenge is the big push by marketers to use infant formulas. Rollins said, “the multi-billion-dollar breast milk substitute industry and its marketing practices undermine breastfeeding as the best practice in early life.”
He added there are effective ways to address the challenge of using breast milk substitutes. One is by having the World Health Assembly regulate their marketing.
“But these stipulations by the World Health Assemblies, these need to be put into legislation in countries. So that in some countries the code of marketing breast milk substitutes is only a voluntary agreement, other countries have firm legislation behind it; but, even the firm legislation needs to have investment and money to actually monitor the code and any of the violations that we see all over the world,” said Rollins.
Secondly, he said meaningful penalties should be imposed whenever manufacturers and distributors cross the line.
He also says restaurants and markets need to do their part to make their environments a positive place for women to nurse their babies and it’s a matter of all sectors working together to support women who want to do do.