This week, the world celebrates Breastfeeding Week. For mothers in the industrialized world with access to clean water, adequate health care, and economic resources, breastfeeding is a matter of personal choice, preference, and health considerations for a mother and her child. Yet for the world’s poorest women, breastfeeding is a strong determinant for child survival and an important solution in the global fight against chronic malnutrition. More so than other interventions, breastfeeding and specifically exclusive breastfeeding in the first 6 months of life, can have a large and lasting impact on reducing child mortality because it provides children with the perfect nutrition they need for healthy growth.
A child that is exclusively breastfed receives critical nutrition and is more secured against disease like diarrhea, making them six times more likely to survive the first few months of life than a child that is not breastfed. This impact is the same for both children in the developing and developed world. Lack of adequate nutrition as a result of poor feeding practices in the first year of life is a leading cause of two thirds of mortality rates of children under five.
The fifth goal of the World Health Assembly global nutrition targets for 2025, increasing exclusive breastfeeding among the world’s poorest can result in the prevention of more than 800,000 or 11% of child deaths in children under 5 in the developing world. In countries like Ghana and Nepal, studies show that breastfeeding in the first hour of birth could prevent 20% of neonatal deaths. In Cambodia, increasing exclusive breastfeeding over the course of a decade from 11% to 74% was a contributing factor in the decline in child deaths from 95 deaths per 1000 to 45 deaths per 1000. Exclusive breastfeeding, especially for women in low to middle income countries, is also an important intervention in reducing mother to child transmission of HIV when breast milk alternatives are not available. Studies have shown that particular proteins (TNC) and HIV neutralizing antibodies found in breast milk help to limit mother to child transmission of HIV.
Despite these benefits, implementation of breastfeeding practices is not yet a norm in developing countries. Inflexible social norms and aggressive marketing of breast milk replacements can present big challenges to the adoption of exclusive breastfeeding by the poorest women. In the context of poverty, illiteracy, poor sanitation and hygiene, the use of breast milk replacements can even cause an increase in child morbidity and mortality.
At the World Health Assembly, the World Health Organization, the 1000 Days coalition and many others championed the increase of exclusive breastfeeding rates from current levels at 38% globally to 50% in the first 6 months of a child’s lives. In support of these targets, they recommend the limitation of breast milk substitute marketing, increasing support for maternal paid leave, supporting mothers and strengthening health systems. Implementing these recommendations and increasing breastfeeding amongst the world’s poorest is an excellent first step in turning the tide in the fight against chronic malnutrition and hunger. ONE is looking forward to a robust outcome of the summer 2016 Nutrition for Growth 2 summit to be held in Brazil. We want to see leaders from governments, civil society, the private sector, and other development partners come together to lay-out a path toward achieving and financing the global nutrition targets and to commit to transparently tracking their progress.