This week is World Breastfeeding Week, and this year’s theme, Step up for Breastfeeding: Educate and Support, seeks to focus global attention and galvanize collective action to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding across all aspects of society.
Most of us have heard the statistics and recognize the benefits associated with breastfeeding. Breast milk provides babies the best start in life, designed by our Creator to contain a perfect blend of essential nutrients and protective antibodies. It supports optimal physical and cognitive development and helps protect against illness and malnutrition. Nursing mothers benefit too, with breastfeeding proven to reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancers.
Having spent years advocating for maternal and child health and nutrition programs, I, too, knew the myriad benefits of breastfeeding. But it wasn’t until I became a mother in March of 2021 that I came to understand in a personal way the enormous gift, as well as the incredible sacrifice, that is breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding – that beautiful experience of sustaining and nourishing another life with your own – requires intentionality and commitment as well as knowledge and support.
Support at the Push of a Button
Crucially, I benefited from excellent pre- and post-natal care. I was fortunate enough to deliver my son in a hospital equipped with lactation consultants who were on call to answer questions from new mothers like me. At the press of a button, these incredible women would arrive in my recovery room, ready to share their experiences, assuage my concerns, and troubleshoot common breastfeeding problems. And when my son became jaundiced and doctors insisted that we supplement with formula, it was the lactation consultants who encouraged me to continue in the work of breastfeeding.
Now, more than a year later, I can easily say that nursing has been one of the greatest joys of motherhood. The countless hours spent holding my sweet baby while staring into his eyes have been incredibly healthy for both of us – not just physically, but emotionally as well. There is something so beautiful and bonding about the singularly intimate act of breastfeeding.
But breastfeeding does not and cannot happen in a vacuum. Beyond the support of lactation consultants, I had the encouragement of my husband and other family members. I had access to nutritious food and clean water, as well as vitamins that helped me maintain a healthy supply of milk.
I benefited from a social environment that consisted of friends and fellow mothers who were happy to share information and personal successes and struggles. I’ve had professional support and accommodations. And I had time. Time to sit down, time to rest, time to breastfeed. As any mother who has breastfed knows, it is an incredible time commitment.
Empowering Women to Meet Breastfeeding Goals
Ultimately, I was able to successfully breastfeed my son due to a broader set of social, economic, and environmental factors that created an enabling atmosphere for my body to do precisely what God designed it to do.
But far too many new mothers, in too many places around the world, lack that same vital support. They are not empowered and enabled to meet their breastfeeding goals. Despite increased awareness of the enormous benefits of breastfeeding – for both baby and mother – less than half of infants under six months of age were exclusively breastfed in 2021. And in many of the countries and contexts where Food for the Hungry (FH) works, breastfeeding can truly mean the difference between life and death for a vulnerable baby.
USAID notes that breastfeeding has the greatest impact on child mortality of any preventative intervention. They estimate that the lives of an additional 823,000 children and 20,000 women could be saved each year just through the adoption of optimal breastfeeding practices. Clearly, breastfeeding is an incredibly important tool in the fight against poverty and injustice.
Women with their children participate in an FH Care Group in Indonesia.
That is what makes FH’s breastfeeding work through our Care Group model so incredibly important.
FH Care Groups leverage the power of existing social networks within communities to educate, equip, and mobilize women to become health educators, sharing their knowledge and experience of breastfeeding with others. In this way, our work truly reflects this year’s World Breastfeeding Week focus on education and support.
My hope is that this week’s global celebration of breastfeeding will be a time to appreciate the incredible strength and sacrifice of the breastfeeding mothers in our own lives and redouble our organizational efforts to build capacity and support all mothers and babies everywhere.
Kristen Callaway is FH’s Public Policy & Advocacy Advisor. She has nearly a decade of experience working in public policy to advance the fight against global poverty and injustice and advocating for the most vulnerable. Kristen and her husband are the proud parents of a one-year-old son.
For Further Reading:
Nutrition Training Saves the Lives of New Mothers
Mothers Empower Girls to Stay in School