Around the world, nearly 7 million children under the age of five die every year, and half of those fatalities occur in the first few months of a child’s life. With young immune systems prone to disease and infection, infants are susceptible to diarrhea, pneumonia and a host of other potentially deadly illnesses. Infants in rural and poverty-stricken areas are especially vulnerable, but even children in developed nations run the risk of contracting a disease in early childhood and being unable to fight it.
The good news is, strengthening an infant’s immune system isn’t difficult or expensive: just feed him or her breast milk, and only breast milk, during the first six months of life, and that infant will have a significantly better medical prognosis during infanthood, childhood and indeed throughout the rest of his life.
The World Health Organization estimates that if every baby in the world were exclusively breastfed in their first six months of life, more than 200,000 infant deaths could be prevented every year. Health research shows that breastfeeding is particularly important in the developing world, where poor sanitation standards already present a danger to infants. According to studies in Ghana, Peru and India, infants not exclusively or primarily breastfed are 10 times more likely to die in the early stages of childhood.
Breastfeeding provides an infant essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals, as well as disease-fighting antibodies from the mother’s own immune system. The physical process of sucking on a mother’s nipple promotes mouth and jaw growth, and an infant will likewise enjoy digestion and hormone benefits during this feeding process. Interestingly, research also shown that the benefits of breastfeeding extend into adulthood too: obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes are less likely to occur in adults who were exclusively breastfed during their first six months.
Health care advocates are almost unanimous in their support of breastfeeding: so why has the practice still not taken hold? To begin, there’s the problem of misinformation. Plenty of new parents simply aren’t aware of the benefits of breast milk, and may be lead by peers or advertisements to believe that formula is a better choice for their new baby. And although breastfeeding sounds like a natural and self-explanatory concept, it’s a process that many new mothers find difficult – and without support from hospital staff or midwives, mothers may choose formula instead.
This year, WHO is calling special attention to this need for breastfeeding support from health professionals and family. To encourage consistent breastfeeding it’s important to start the habit early, which is why it’s recommended that health care staff instruct new mothers in the practice during the first hour of an infant’s life. By starting breastfeeding early, both mother and baby can become comfortable with the practice, and moms will have the opportunity to ask nearby health care staff any questions about breast milk and feeding – how to persuade a reluctant infant to take the nipple, for example, and what to expect in terms of how often a new baby will need to eat.
WHO points to New Zealand as an example of one country that greatly improved its rates of breastfed infants, thanks to initiatives of the past decade and a half emphasizing “baby-friendly” training for hospital staff. Head of the New Zealand Breastfeeding Authority Julie Stufkens has said that now, health workers are instructed to help new mothers breastfeed rather than offering them formula, and thanks to these and other efforts around 80 percent of newborns in New Zealand are exclusively breastfed.
As always during World Breastfeeding Week, health care advocates are hoping for similar action and good results in countries around the globe. WHO member states attending the most recent World Health Assembly hope to increase exclusive breastfeeding by 50 percent or more by 2025, and WHO says that if more countries can implement legislation and educational efforts to promote breastfeeding, that goal can absolutely be met.
Of course, improving infant health through breast milk also means reducing the use of packaged formula, and WHO, UNICEF and other health care organizations strongly recommend that nations pass laws restricting the presence of infant formula advertising. These advertisements are not only likely to be medically inaccurate, but also may promote a social stigma against breast milk – creating yet another barrier to health care workers’ efforts to get more women breastfeeding their infants.
The benefits of breastfeeding are numerous, and countries are recommended to engage in their own educational campaigns to get health care staff and new parents aware of all the good breast milk can do. Besides providing essential nutrients and health defenses for babies, breastfeeding helps new parents by supporting the mother-infant bond, reducing the risk of hemorrhage following childbirth, and delaying fertility which prevents pregnancies from occurring too close together. Then there’s the fact that breast milk is free: families living on a limited income can and should make full use of breast milk as a no-cost alternative to formula, an alternative that in reality is the best option for their new baby.
Unlike many health care dilemmas facing communities around the globe, the issue of breastfeeding is easy: it’s natural, it’s cheap, and it’s remarkably effective at curbing disease and giving infants and adults a better chance of lifelong health. As breast milk becomes more normalized and better recognized for its benefits, mothers, fathers, communities and governments will hopefully continue the good progress of promoting breastfeeding.