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The importance of breastfeeding

Global recommendations for infant and young child feeding are set out in WHO and UNICEF’s joint 2003 Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding. The Strategy states that, ‘Infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health. Thereafter, to meet their evolving nutrition requirements infants should receive nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods while breastfeeding continues for up to two years of age or beyond.’ Particularly in the poorest countries, breastfeeding is vital to many children’s survival and development. The Lives Saved Tool (LiST) developed by a consortium of academic and international organizations estimates that 823,000 annual deaths could have been saved in 75 high-mortality, low to middle income countries in 2015 if breastfeeding were scaled up to near universal levels.

Due to the sub-optimal rates of breastfeeding worldwide, and continuing poor infant mortality and health, the WHO has set global targets for 2025 of reducing wasting to less than 5%, a 40% reduction in children who are stunted, increasing the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months to at least 50% and seeing no increase in levels of overweight children.

Breastfeeding confers a range of health and other benefits to infants and children everywhere, in developed and developing countries, as extensive research has consistently demonstrated. Babies that are breastfed are at a lower-risk of:

  • Dying
  • Gastroenteritis
  • Respiratory infections
  • Obesity
  • Type 1 & 2 diabetes

A recent systematic review and meta-analysis found that babies that continued to be breastfed after 12 months of age exhibited a two-fold less risk of mortality than those that weren’t breastfed.

Mothers also benefit from breastfeeding by deriving greater protection against breast and ovarian cancer and hip fractures in later life, for example. Recent evidence has demonstrated an association between prolonged breastfeeding and postmenopausal risk factors for cardiovascular (CV) disease. These illnesses all represent the greatest threats to women’s health across all ages. By reducing the incidence of infants’ and mothers’ illness, extensive breastfeeding can therefore reduce the burden on health systems.

While the vast majority of women and infants can breastfeed, in low-income, middleincome and high-income countries, breastfeeding rates are falling and uptake of breast-milk substitutes (BMS) is increasing for many reasons. These include rising rates of female participation in the labor force in many developing markets, urbanization and increasing incomes and aspirations which have encouraged the adoption of convenience-oriented lifestyles, and making baby formula and prepared baby foods more desirable. In many countries, the caché of premium products is an important symbol of social status. The marketing of BMS products is also believed to contribute to the decreasing rates of breastfeeding.

Improving nutrition for all

The Access to Nutrition Index rates food and beverage manufacturers´ nutrition-related policies, practices and disclosures worldwide on a recurring basis.


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