The first week of August is World Breastfeeding Week, a week focused on the protection, promotion, and support of breastfeeding. Why do that? Because the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) believes “breastfeeding prevents hunger and malnutrition in all its forms and ensures food security for babies, even in times of crises.” This is also an issue close to my heart, and the heart of Food for the Hungry.
As someone with over 30 years of experience working in international development, including working alongside World Health Organization (WHO) officials to find processes to build immune systems of African children in the 1970s, I have seen the unequivocal benefits breastfeeding has had on mothers and children in contexts of malnutrition. A mother feeding her baby breast milk is a health issue that can mean life or death for a child.
The research is overwhelming.
A mother’s breast milk is the most nutritious food for babies under six months old. It provides antibodies that build the immune system and protect against viruses and other pathogens — a benefit that baby formulas have yet to replicate. By implementing universal breastfeeding, 800,000 child deaths a year would be averted. Considering that studies show the first 1,000 days of a child’s life determine the child’s future prospects to perform well in school and lifelong health, the first six months can make a fundamental difference. Breastfeeding lowers a baby’s risk of having asthma and allergies. Babies who are breastfed exclusively for the first six months, without anything else, have fewer ear infections, respiratory illnesses, and bouts of diarrhea. Breastfeeding also has physiological and relational benefits, since a mother and her child are more strongly bonded in the process.
In places like the US where most families have access to clean water, a mother’s decision whether or not to breastfeed can be less consequential. However, in the developing countries where Food for the Hungry works, breastfeeding is often a question of life or death. Access to safe drinking water is critically limited or nonexistent in these hard places. This means breast milk substitutes like formula that need to be mixed with water also increase exposure to water-borne diseases. In fact, diarrhea from dirty water is a leading cause of death, accounting for approximately 8 percent of deaths among children under five.
That’s 1,300 young children each day.
Financially impoverished families needn’t spend their hard-earned pennies on unnecessary baby formula that ends up creating economic hardship, potential health problems, and in some countries, perpetuates misconceptions that seed generations of cultural misinformation. Even if a mother is moderately malnourished, she will continue to make high quality milk, better than formula.
Breastfeeding education is a core element of the kinds of health programs you are helping support in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. (Click here to read a powerful story about this type of transformation from Ethiopia.) Breastfeeding best practices, how often to do it, when to introduce solid food, and how to monitor cues for when a baby is hungry are critical. It is a fundamental and cost-effective pathway to promoting healthy child nutrition and reducing infant mortality rates. The health wonders of breastfeeding are a part of the life-giving beauty of motherhood.
It’s critical that anyone engaged in global health and development continue investing in breastfeeding education and sustainable safe drinking water, hygiene, and sanitation infrastructure. You can help promote breastfeeding education in honor of World Breastfeeding Week by clicking here.