The World Health Organization and UNICEF said exclusive breastfeeding could save the lives of more than 820,000 children under 5 years of age every year.
The U.N. health agencies said they are making inroads in getting across their message about the benefits of breastfeeding, noting, “The prevalence of exclusive breastfeeding rates has increased by a remarkable 10 percentage points to 48% globally” over the last decade.
They acknowledge, however, that the rate falls short of the 2030 breastfeeding target of 70% and are calling for greater family, communal and workplace support for nursing mothers.
“Breastfeeding is as important as breathing fresh air and eating nutritious food,” said Nina Chad, infant and young child feeding consultant for the WHO.
Protection from infectious diseases
Speaking on Skype from Sydney, Australia, she told VOA that the way babies start eating in life is important for keeping them healthy throughout their lives.
“Breastfeeding is important because it protects babies from infectious diseases in infancy, such as diarrhea and pneumonia, that can be life-threatening, and it protects mothers from noncommunicable diseases throughout their life course,” adding, “Women who breastfeed are less likely to get breast and ovarian cancers.”
To achieve maximum benefit, the World Health Organization advises mothers to breastfeed babies exclusively for the first six months, then introduce nutritious solid foods and continue to breastfeed up to 2 years of age or beyond.
Research shows such children are less likely to be overweight or obese, do better on intelligence tests and earn a higher income in adult life.
The WHO said millions of children who miss out on the benefits of breastfeeding are at risk of stunting and wasting. It warned that undernutrition was associated “with 2.7 million or 45% child deaths annually.”
Fatmata Fatima Sesay, a UNICEF specialist in infant feeding, said, “In emergency situations and difficult circumstances, breastfeeding can make the difference between life and death for babies.”
She told VOA that “mothers face increased obstacles in feeding their babies” in situations of armed conflict such as in Sudan and in climate-driven droughts like in the Horn of Africa that have forced millions of families from their homes.
Sesay, however, also said, “Even in the face of difficult circumstances like this, babies who are breastfed have much more food security than those who are formula fed.”
She said babies in emergency situations who are formula fed “not only lose the advantages of breastfeeding, but they are also at risk of contamination from inadequate clean water” to make the formula and clean the utensils.
Beyond those difficult situations, she said, many women have a whole host of other common challenges to overcome and need practical support to help them with the care and feeding of their infants.
Criticism of formula industry
She expressed anger at the exploitative marketing practices of the $55 billion infant formula industry “that discourage mothers from breastfeeding. We know from research that these companies are using manipulative tactics to exploit mothers and parents, as well as exploiting their anxieties and aspirations.”
Sesay said governments can protect mothers and caregivers from aggressive, underhanded tactics by implementing the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes.
“There is strong evidence that shows that countries that are fully aligned with the code are able to reach the 70% breastfeeding goal by 2030,” she said.
In marking World Breastfeeding Week, the WHO and UNICEF agreed that greater breastfeeding support in workplaces would boost global breastfeeding rates. They urged governments to ensure that all mothers, even those who work in the informal sector, have access to at least 18 weeks of paid maternity leave.
The agencies called for new mothers to be given regular breaks in the workplace, so the moms can continue to breastfeed their children once they return to work.