Breast-feeding should be a global priority

A skilled birth attendant shows a young mother how to breastfeed her baby at an integrated health centre in the town of Maradi, Maradi region, south east of Niger. UNICEF supports a safe motherhood programme to reduce maternal and neonatal mortality. Photo by: © UNICEF / UNI99691 / Pirozzi

Let’s face it: No one thinks of breast-feeding as an urgent global matter. But it’s actually an issue that impacts all nations, regardless of income level or economic standing. At this year’s United Nations General Assembly, policymakers and elected officials should increase their political commitment for breast-feeding as they work to tackle issues of critical importance related to the health, wellbeing and economic success of their 193 states. It’s directly related to our collective goals.

So why is breast-feeding relevant to the U.N. General Assembly? Last year, over 170 world governments committed to 17 Sustainable Development Goals, including goals aimed at ending hunger, ensuring food security, improving nutrition, achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls by 2030. Breast-feeding is a key component of actualizing these goals, which will be front and center at this year’s assembly.

Take malnutrition, for example. The events at UNGA have stressed that more needs to be done to eradicate hunger and prevent all forms of malnutrition, including obesity. We tend to forget that breast-feeding can make a big difference, even though it’s one of the greatest determining factors of a child’s ability to prevent malnutrition and chronic diseases such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, not to mention the critical role it plays in infants’ food security and in reducing child mortality.

Recent research in The Lancet confirmed that breast milk acts as a baby’s first vaccine, protecting infants from diseases and giving them a perfectly adapted nutritional supply at each developmental stage. Breast-feeding exclusively for the first six months could save more than 800,000 children’s lives each year — without having to develop new medicine.

Breast-feeding is a clear way to improve health outcomes at scale, but it’s often overlooked due to misconceptions that breast-feeding rates are higher than they are or that this is something that can be done easily without government investment.

“The implications for global health and economic outcomes are vast; policymakers worldwide would be wise to invest in breast-feeding and reap the benefits.”

— France Bégin, senior nutrition adviser at UNICEF

This is not the case, and removing barriers to breast-feeding will go a long way in achieving the SDGs. The majority of women worldwide want to nurse their babies, but doing so requires support. It takes considerable time and energy to breast-feed for the recommended length of time, and too many women have to stop breast-feeding before they want to due to the numerous existing barriers to breast-feeding worldwide.

Health and workplace policies haven’t kept up with women’s roles in business, society, politics, family and academia. We need to make it easier for women to breast-feed in every country across the globe, with lactation counseling after giving birth, paid time off, and space and time to breast-feed or express milk while at work.

Also essential is the strict enforcement of the International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes so that formula companies can’t mislead women about the nutritional value of breast milk substitutes or discourage them from breast-feeding. With $70 billion sucked into the formula industry annually, enforcement of the code will help ensure that mothers are making a real, informed choice when choosing whether to feed their baby formula or breast milk.

Further, many women do not receive any counseling to breast-feed, which can come easily to some but can be challenging for others. And this does not just happen in low-income countries.

A recent report from 1000 Days indicates that a key reason American women stop breast-feeding earlier than anticipated is that they lack access to counselors, lactation consultants and other health care professionals trained in breast-feeding support. In other parts of the world, colostrum — the nutrient-dense breast milk a mother produces immediately after giving birth — is often discarded by women or health workers who are unaware of its nutritional value. And millions of women stop breast-feeding before they want to because they can’t raise a family without a paycheck and paid family leave isn’t guaranteed everywhere.

Removing barriers to breast-feeding is effective. In Brazil, the average duration of breast-feeding increased substantially thanks to the country’s close monitoring of marketing by formula makers and commitment to increasing leave time for new parents. Mother-to-mother support groups and significant paid maternity leave have made breast-feeding the norm in Norway, while efforts to remove barriers to breast-feeding in Vietnam have tripled the country’s breast-feeding rates in just seven years.

Participants in UNGA should learn from each other’s challenges and successes in supporting breast-feeding and increasing breast-feeding rates. Breast-feeding serves as a great equalizer in low-income and high-income countries alike, providing babies with the best start to life. Not only does breast-feeding play an essential role in eradicating hunger, preventing malnutrition and boosting health outcomes, it’s fiscally smart too.

The money needed to remove barriers and help women breast-feed is more than made up for by saved health care costs for babies and mothers, earnings from a more prepared workforce, and from women who can contribute to the economy more consistently. A 10 percent increase in exclusive breast-feeding up to six months or continued breast-feeding for a year or two would translate into at least $312 million in health care savings in the U.S., $48 million in the U.K., $30.3 million in urban China and $6 million in Brazil.

Our leaders need to support policies and programs and provide resources for families that ensure moms are able to nurse their babies — not just at birth, but for as long as they want. It’s up to all of us to make sure women are not forced into the false choice of giving up breast-feeding or nursing less frequently because our society makes it difficult. The implications for global health and economic outcomes are vast; policymakers worldwide would be wise to invest in breast-feeding and reap the benefits.

For more Devex coverage on global health, visit Focus On: Global Health 

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • France Begin

    France Bégin is senior nutrition adviser for infant and young child nutrition at UNICEF in New York and previously she was regional nutrition adviser for the Asia-Pacific region from 2009-2013. She has more than 25 years of experience in international nutrition. She holds a Ph.D. in nutrition from the University of Montreal with a focus on international nutrition.