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UNICEF is focusing on breastfeeding as the most effective and inexpensive way of saving a child’s life. But with less than half of all children under six months benefitting from exclusive breastfeeding, strong leadership in promoting the practice is essential.
“There is no other single health intervention that has such a high impact for babies and mothers as breastfeeding and which costs so little for governments,” said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta. “Breastfeeding is a baby’s ‘first immunization’ and the most effective and inexpensive life-saver ever.”
Children who are exclusively breastfed are 14 times more likely to survive the first six months of lifethan non-breastfed children. Starting breastfeeding in the first day after birth can reduce the risk of new-born death by up to 45 per cent.
Breastfeeding also supports a child’s ability to learn and helps prevent obesity and chronic diseases later in life. Recent studies in the United States and United Kingdom point to large health care savings resulting from breastfeeding, given that breastfed children fall illmuch less often than non-breastfed children.
Apart from the benefits to the baby, mothers who breastfeed exclusively are less likely to become pregnant in the first six months following delivery, recover faster from giving birth, and return to their pre-pregnancy weight sooner. Evidence shows that they experience less post-partum depression and also have a lower risk of ovarian and breast cancers later in life.
Despite these well documented benefits of breastfeeding worldwide, only 39 per cent of children aged less than six months were exclusively breastfed in 2012. This global figure has improved very little for the past several decades, due in part to large countries where the breastfeeding rate is low, and to the general lack of a supportive environment for breastfeeding mothers.
However, countries with supportive policies and comprehensive programmes that reach all communities have been able to increase their breastfeeding rates significantly.
China, which recently attracted media attention because its strong consumer demand for baby formula caused shortages in other countries, has an exclusive breastfeeding rate of only 28 per cent.
In a bid to boost such low rates in the world’s most populous country, UNICEF and the National Centre for Women’s and Children’s Health in May launched a “10m2of Love” campaign to locate, register, certify and publicize breastfeeding rooms in order to raise awareness and support for breastfeeding.
The campaign has established a web portal (unicef.cn/10m2) where any organization can register breastfeeding rooms for staff, patrons or customers that adhere to simple international standards. A mobile phone application to map the locations of all 10m2of Love facilities is under development.
Cambodia has had notable success in raising exclusive breastfeeding rates from 11.7 per cent of infants less than six months in 2000 to a very high 74 per cent in 2010. Togo and Zambia also increased the rates from 10 and 20 per cent respectively in the late 1990s to over 60 per cent by 2000.
At the other end of the scale, Tunisia’s exclusive breastfeeding rate fell dramatically from 46.5 per cent in 2000 to only 6.2 per cent by the end of the decade.
The exclusive breastfeeding rate in Indonesia is declining; Nigeria has made no improvement over many years; and some of the lowest rates in the world are in Somalia, Chad and South Africa.
Such examples reflect insufficient global leadership on breastfeeding, as it continues to be undervalued relative to its importance in the life of child. There needs to be higher prioritization and commitment, targeted policies and greater consensus to engage the world in promoting this life-saving and vital practice.
Although breastfeeding is natural and may seem instinctive, it is essential to create an enabling environment for it to become the norm. Mothers benefit from the help of skilled health providers and community workers to support them to breastfeed, as well as culturally-sensitive communication, and protective laws and policies, particularly around the marketing of breastmilk substitutes and maternity leave.
UNICEF campaigns for exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and continued breastfeeding for two years or beyond, using creative tactics to draw attention to the issue. It recently rolled out a campaign in Uruguay and Argentina, “Giving the breast is giving the best of you,” starring Uruguayan actress Natalia Oreiro, aiming to boost breastfeeding among working mothers.