New Research Shows Breastfeeding Rates are Abysmally Low
Yesterday I wrote about how doctors are failing breastfeeding mums. At the time of writing the article, I intended for it to be a stand alone piece; but by coincidence – or because the issue is not merely my experience, but actually a very real problem played out across the country, every day – this morning I’m sharing more on the same theme:
How we are all, in fact, being failed by our peers and by society, by health care providers and even by the government – on a global scale.
How can I so confidently make such a sweeping statement? Last week I was privileged to be invited to take part in a press call with UNICEF, the World Health Organisation, 1,000 Days, the First Lady of Nigeria and the Minister of Health of Indonesia. The call was to discuss this exact issue, backed up by a new report by UNICEF and WHO in collaboration with the Global Breastfeeding Collective, a new initiative to increase global breastfeeding rates. It makes for grim reading…
UNICEF and WHO Release New Breastfeeding Research
The research illustrates the extent to which mothers and babies worldwide are failed by a lack of investment in breastfeeding: no country in the world fully meets recommendations for breastfeeding. Not one. There are many reasons for this but as far as I’m concerned, at a grass roots level, there are two main problems:
- Lack of support;
- Lack of investment.
The two issues actually go hand in hand, because only with additional funding can we improve education and hopefully, therefore, support.
An aspect which desperately requires attention is one that’s enmeshed in our culture – specifically the lack of support in the community of Western countries. I’m not going to harp on about the horrors of formula because it absolutely has its place (it probably saved my older daughter’s life), but we do need to consider the long-lasting, damaging effects that inappropriate promotion of the products has caused.
Essentially, we’re in a situation whereby we use a synthetic product to nurture our babies at least as often as we choose to use that which nature intended.
I shan’t wax lyrical about the repugnance of formula, because actually that’s not what I believe. Nonetheless, by definition it is not natural, and and therefore in the majority of cases it is also not preferable over breastfeeding. Of course, I’m not medically trained or qualified to make such bold assertions. So I’m just going to drop a couple of facts supplied to me by those globally respected organisations who I was on the call with last week:
- The Global Breastfeeding Scorecard, which evaluated 194 nations, found that only 40 per cent of children younger than six months are breastfed exclusively (given nothing but breastmilk);
- Only 23 countries have exclusive breastfeeding rates above 60 per cent;
- Evidence shows that breastfeeding has cognitive and health benefits for both infants and their mothers;
- It is especially critical during the first six months of life, helping prevent diarrhoea and pneumonia, two major causes of death in infants;
- Mothers who breastfeed have a reduced risk of ovarian and breast cancer, two leading causes of death among women.
“Breastmilk works like a baby’s first vaccine, protecting infants from potentially deadly diseases and giving them all the nourishment they need to survive and thrive.”
– Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO
“Breastfeeding is one of the most effective—and cost effective—investments nations can make in the health of their youngest members and the future health of their economies and societies. By failing to invest in breastfeeding, we are failing mothers and their babies—and paying a double price: in lost lives and in lost opportunity.”
– UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake
Today marks the start of World Breastfeeding Week and the scorecard has been released this morning in an effort to increase awareness of the work that still needs to be done to help support those who breastfeed or wish to do so.
How Beneficial is Breastfeeding Compared to Formula Feeding?
I recently saw a paediatrician about Elfin’s allergy to cow’s milk protein. The are two ways to eliminate it from her diet so she is more comfortable, ie. not regularly writhing in pain and presenting with a severe rash: put her on formula or cut all trace of dairy from my diet. Quite the undertaking…
The paediatrician told me that it was preferable to continue breastfeeding without altering my diet, rather than moving Elfin on to formula.
Naturally I’ve eliminated dairy (and soy) since her diagnosis, but the sentiment is clear: unless there is no alternative, the benefits of breastfeeding will always outweigh resorting to formula. And that’s the point – formula should be a last resort, not a viable alternative as is currently the case.
At the risk of offending non-breastfeeders, I’d go so far as to suggest this campaign is designed to actively encourage all mothers to default to breastfeeding, with formula being used as a substitute only when medically required.
For the record, in my opinion ‘medically required’ covers a wide base, making provision for mental and emotional reasons in addition to physical obstacles to breastfeeding.
The Benefits of Improved Breastfeeding Rates
The research shows that an annual investment of USD 4.70 per newborn is required to increase the global rate of exclusive breastfeeding among children under six months to 50 per cent by 2025. Whilst that may mount up, in the context of ROI, it’s a tiny amount.
Nurturing the Health and Wealth of Nations: The Investment Case for Breastfeeding, suggests that meeting this target could save the lives of 520,000 children under the age of five and, as a result of reduced illness and health care costs and increased productivity, potentially generate USD 300 billion in economic gains across a decade.
The investment case shows that in five of the world’s largest emerging economies — China, India, Indonesia, Mexico and Nigeria — the lack of investment in breastfeeding results in an estimated 236,000 child deaths per year and USD 119 billion in economic losses. That’s tragic on a personal level and abhorrent on a national and international level.
So What Does the Initiative Aim to Achieve?
Globally, investment in breastfeeding is obscenely lacking. The Global Breastfeeding Collective is calling on countries to:
- Increase funding to raise breastfeeding rates from birth to two years;
- Fully implement the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes by enforcing strong legal measures and monitor this by organisations free from conflicts of interest;
- Make improvements to workplace breastfeeding policies;
- Implement the Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding in maternity facilities, including providing donor breastmilk for sick and vulnerable newborns;
- Improve access to breastfeeding counselling in health facilities;
- Strengthen links between health facilities and communities;
- Encourage community networks that promote and support breastfeeding;
- Strengthen monitoring systems that track the progress of policies, programmes, and funding towards achieving both national and global breastfeeding targets.
When it comes to sensitive subjects we are too often suppressed by political correctness. Common sense on a national level has faltered to the point of farce, and a fear of causing offence has led to an ability to be straight forward about critical issues. But the research is clear:
We need to address the abysmal levels of breastfeeding on a global scale.
This is not judgement, it’s a simple fact.
Did you find sufficient help on offer to help you with your breastfeeding journey, or did a lack of support lead to a premature end for you and your little one?