Breastfeeding: An Investment We Can’t Afford To Miss

Posted by Katie Taylor
January 29, 2016
Female Community Health Worker Councils a Group of Women, Including Expectant and New Mothers, on Good Health Practices in Nepal. [USAID Photo]

Anyone who has breastfed knows a mother’s milk is ‘liquid gold,’ and the scientific evidence for the many incredible benefits breast milk provides is stronger today than ever:

  • Breast milk is ready to use and perfectly customized for a child’s nutritional needs and immune system. It is filled with vital nutrients a baby needs, and is packed with disease-fighting substances that can protect a baby from illness.
  • A breast milk diet results in healthier, stronger babies who are less likely to develop infections thanks to the antibodies that are present in the milk to fight disease. 
  • Breastfeeding is also beneficial to mothers, as those who breastfeed are less likely to develop breast, ovarian, or uterine cancer, and are less likely to bleed excessively after childbirth.

When examining key global issues like poverty, hunger, education, and health, there is no question -- breastfeeding is effective and essential to improved health and nutrition, a better education, and a more prosperous life. New scientific research and outcomes from development initiatives are bearing out this truth like never before.

In a new series of papers on breastfeeding published today in The Lancet, researchers evaluated the short and long-term consequences for both mother and child, regardless of where they live or their income. The study concluded that improved breastfeeding practices could save over 820,000 lives each year, 87 percent of them infants under six months of age. These practices include initiating breastfeeding within one hour after birth, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, and continued breastfeeding for up to two years or longer. The study also shows that breastfeeding can prevent almost half of episodes of diarrhea and one-third of pneumonia cases, the two leading cases of child mortality.

Conversely, failing to breastfeed can rob children of essential nutrients and stunt their growth. Failing to breastfeed also has the potential to undermine economic growth and poverty reduction efforts in communities around the world. The impairment of cognitive development associated with suboptimal breastfeeding amounts to a loss of $302 billion per year globally.

It is clear that what we need is a greater sense of urgency to create and provide support for environments that promote breastfeeding.​ We must inspire and educate not only young mothers, but also mothers-in-law, men, school teachers, religious leaders, and local government officials. We need expectant families to ask questions and make informed decisions about care of their new infant, including the decision to breastfeed exclusively. Community health educators and peer groups can provide one-on-one mentoring during regular home visits with mothers of young children.

We also need a whole range of measures to change behavior and address and remove barriers to adopting breastfeeding as common practice. If we can create an enabling environment and provide opportunities for people to become inspired by what their peers have achieved -- in their social context, and in doing so help respond to their hopes and fears-- we can usher in real social change. But we need a multitude of voices and experiences to remove those barriers in order to make that change a reality.

The United States is working across sectors to save the lives and improve the health of mothers and babies.To this end, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is working to improve breastfeeding practices in 24 priority countries for maternal and child health, together accounting for 70 percent of the world’s child and maternal deaths. Breastfeeding is among ten Accelerator Behaviors identified by USAID as having the greatest lifesaving potential in the countries and communities in which we work.

Optimal breastfeeding is also at the heart of the recently released USAID Multi-Sectoral Nutrition Strategy that guides our investments in agriculture, health, and humanitarian assistance sectors. USAID is prioritizing the prevention of malnutrition given the irreversible consequences of chronic under-nutrition early in life.

But beating hunger and under-nutrition globally will take leadership and collective action, as well as resources. Countries must take ownership and accountability -- at local, regional, and national levels -- and civil society has a critical role to play in ensuring sustained commitment and investment. The strength of cooperation is crucial in the changing development landscape.

The new series from The Lancet provides invaluable evidence that contributes to our efforts to change social norms and mobilize communities around healthy behaviors such as breastfeeding. These efforts have the potential to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of women and newborns, and ultimately, to end a generational epidemic of preventable child and maternal deaths.

About the Author: Katie Taylor serves as the Deputy Child and Maternal Survival Coordinator at USAID and the Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Global Health.

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