Breastmilk ‘benefits children, mothers, and the economy’

Children who are breast-fed longer have been found to have higher IQ levels than those who are breast-fed for shorter periods

Racha Adib
Racha Adib - Special to Al Arabiya English
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The deaths of 823,000 infant and young children lives and 20,000 mothers each year could be prevented by increasing breastfeeding to near-universal levels, according to a recently published Lancet Series on breastfeeding.

The large and exhaustive analysis not only confirmed that “breast is best” for health, but it also concluded that increased breastfeeding could provide economic savings of US$300 billion.

It is widely known that breastfeeding saves children’s lives and improves their health and development, and also helps protect mothers’ health, yet breastfeeding rates around the world are far below international targets.

Breastfeeding is no longer a norm in many communities, particularly the wealthier ones. In low-income countries, most infants are still breastfed at 1 year, compared with less than 20% in many high-income countries.

The UK (<1%), Ireland (2%), and Denmark (3%) have some of the lowest rates of breastfeeding at 12 months in the world. As a result, millions of children and mothers are failing to receive the full benefits provided by breastfeeding.

Breast milk acts as a baby’s first vaccine to help fight disease and illness. Children who are breast-fed longer have been found to have higher IQ levels than those who are breast-fed for shorter periods, the report said. Breastfeeding also prevented one third of all respiratory infections, half of all diarrhea episodes and more than one third of sudden infant deaths and protects against diabetes and obesity later in life.

According to the meta-analyses, breastfeeding also benefits the mother. For each of the first two years a mother breastfeeds over her lifetime, she decreases her risk of developing breast cancer by 6 percent. With better breastfeeding practices, yearly breast cancer deaths could decrease by 40,000 – equivalent to a 50% reduction in deaths. Breastfeeding mothers also benefit from a reduced risk in ovarian cancer.

The Lancet Series showed that breastfeeding benefits are not limited to health but also extend to the economy. Strong economic gain for both rich and poor countries was found when breastfeeding was increased.

According to the report, longer breastfeeding is associated with higher performance on intelligence tests among children and adolescents. This increased intelligence meant a better academic record, higher earnings and more productivity. On the other hand, lower cognitive ability from not breastfeeding is causing a 0.49% loss in the world gross national income. Even in rich countries, these losses reached US$231.4 billion.

A boost in breastfeeding also translated to better health, and could cut treatment costs. For infants below 6 months of age, breastfeeding could save the healthcare system at least US$2.45 billion in the USA, US$29.5 million in the UK, US$223.6 million in China, and US$6.0 million in Brazil.

Despite the various benefits of breastfeeding, women still do not have the support they need to breastfeed. Their reasons for not breastfeeding range from medical, cultural, and psychological to inconvenience.

For example, short maternity leaves clearly affects breastfeeding length. The International Labor Organization recommends 18 weeks for maternity leave, while only 23% of countries meet that recommendation. Healthcare support is generally still weak and does not provide accurate information to mothers. Large marketing efforts on breast-milk substitutes such as infant formulas affects a mother’s decision to breastfeed, and future sales growth in breast-milk substitute is projected to be among the highest in the Middle East and Africa.

But there are glimmers of hope. When a supportive environment is implemented properly, breastfeeding rates can improve. For example, Bangladesh has increased exclusive breastfeeding rates by 13% when 6 months of maternity leave, comprehensive health training, community support, and media campaigns were implemented. These interventions must be scaled up in other countries to protect children, women, and society.

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