GENEVA - Leading U.N. agencies are urging governments to adopt family-friendly policies to encourage mothers to breastfeed their babies at home and at work. The World Health Organization and U.N. Children’s Fund say breastfed babies have the best chance of enjoying a healthy, productive life.
Health experts agree both mothers and babies reap tremendous benefits from breastfeeding. They say nursing mothers run lower risks of getting ovarian cancer, breast cancer and Type 2 diabetes.
For babies, there are both short-term and long-term benefits. They say mother’s milk supports healthy brain development in babies and boosts their immune systems so they can better fight off infections.
A U.N. survey finds wealthier countries have the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, with fewer than 25 percent of babies being exclusively breastfed. This compares with Rwanda where nearly 90 percent of babies are breastfed and other countries such as Burundi and Sri Lanka, which have high rates of well over 80 percent.
The technical officer in WHO’s nutrition department, Laurence Grummer-Strawn, tells VOA children in the richer countries would enjoy long-term benefits from breastfeeding.
“Babies who are breast fed are actually less likely to become obese when they are older children," said Grummer-Strawn. "They have lower risks of SIDS or sudden infant death syndrome. They have lower risk of leukemia…And, in low income countries, it reduces risks of respiratory infections and diarrhea that are some of the big killers of children.”
WHO reports increasing breastfeeding could prevent 823,000 deaths in children under five every year and 20,000 annual deaths from breast cancer. Additionally, Grummer-Strawn says a World Bank analysis finds investing in increasing breastfeeding would produce huge returns.
“They estimated for every dollar that is spent to promote, protect and support breastfeeding, $35 would be saved in economic gains around the world," said Grummer-Strawn. "The overall estimate is that on an annual basis, we lose $302 billion in global productivity because of the lack of breastfeeding.”
WHO and UNICEF are calling on governments to support breastfeeding by enacting paid maternity leave for a minimum of 18 weeks; as well as paid paternity leave to encourage shared caring of children on an equal basis.
They say employers should support nursing mothers returning to work by providing them with a private, hygienic space for breastfeeding and expressing and storing milk.