Breastfeeding mother catches the gaze of her young baby © Shutterstock

Breastfeeding - transforming global health one baby at a time

30th July 2016

Breastfeeding is unrivalled in its ability to efficiently impact on all forms of malnutrition and prevent and protect against numerous NCDs. Despite its benefits, exclusive breastfeeding rates for infants' first 6 months of life are still well below the WHO target of 50% of all babies.

This year's World Breastfeeding Week theme is "Breastfeeding: A key to Sustainable Development", and our blog, by Lucy Sullivan of 1,000 days, explains why it's important that the global health community ensures breastfeeding is prioritised as a key to ending malnutrition in all its forms  and improving global health. 

It’s not often you see a pop culture icon on a global health blog. Rarely even. But it’s also rare to even SEE a woman breastfeeding, let alone a celebrity. A recent music video from Fergie included Chrissy Teigen, supermodel and wife of singer John Legend, nursing her child. Without making a direct statement about the importance of breastfeeding to improve global health, the inclusion of a nursing mum speaks to a broader issue – how can we discuss the many benefits of breastfeeding if we can’t see or talk about it? (These are our words, not Fergie’s of course).

It’s rare that we see and get to celebrate breastfeeding because it’s seen as a private and personal matter and has also somehow become a controversial subject. Breastfeeding can be challenging for many women, for many different reasons – and we get that. But as global health and development advocates, it’s our job to NOT lose focus on breastfeeding, because it’s one of the most important things we can do to promote global health and specifically to prevent and reduce malnutrition in all its forms and non-communicable diseases (NCDs). 

Breastfeeding - an unparalleled nutrition intervention

Malnutrition and NCDs have a lot in common. Both pose a significant threat to global health, but have not been given due attention and funding. Unsurprisingly then, the world is off-track to meet both nutrition and NCD targets, despite the strong scientific evidence for prevention. Many NCDs are considered to be nutrition-related and can be prevented with improved nutrition. Fortunately, there’s a single intervention that has an unparalleled impact on combatting both malnutrition and NCDs: breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding & NCD prevention - benefits for mother & child

Optimal breastfeeding practices, including early initiation followed by exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of a child’s life and continued breastfeeding, have powerful benefits that impact a child’s life into adulthood. New evidence recently published in the British medical journal The Lancet reveals that breastfeeding has important implications for NCDs in both mother and child.

For mothers, breastfeeding protects by increasing birth spacing, reducing risk of postpartum haemorrhage, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers such as breast and ovarian cancer. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide and is particularly on the rise in developing countries where the majority of cases are diagnosed in late stages. For each year a mother breastfeeds, her risk of developing invasive breast cancer decreases 6%. Improving breastfeeding practices could potentially prevent an additional 20,000 deaths each year from breast cancer.

Short of a silver bullet, optimal breastfeeding practices could have a life-saving impact for thousands of women

In children, there is growing evidence that breastfeeding decreases the prevalence of overweight/obesity and type II diabetes in children later in life. In addition to preventing NCDs, breastfeeding has the power to save more than 800,000 children’s lives each year, for example by providing babies' first anti-body and growth factor filled immunisation against infections, and increase a child’s IQ by three to four points. Babies that are breastfed go on to learn and earn more, ultimately helping to end the cycle of poverty and improve economic development of entire nations.

The world is well off-track in pursuing breastfeeding targets to promote health

And yet, despite the overwhelming evidence that breastfeeding benefits everyone, only 37% of children younger than six months are exclusively breastfed. At the current pace, the world is not on track to reach the World Health Assembly (WHA) target to increase exclusive breastfeeding rates to 50% by 2025. In fact, a new study by the World Bank and Results for Development (R4D) shows that all sources need to scale-up their funding by an additional $570 million per year over the next 10 years to reach the target.

Breastfeeding - a key ingredient for sustainable development

It’s clear that breastfeeding is a key ingredient to addressing cross-cutting challenges in global health and development, including ending malnutrition in all its forms and preventing NCDs. This year’s theme for World Breastfeeding Week is Breastfeeding and the SDGs. With an emphasis already placed on breastfeeding AND a global goal, let’s not forget that breastfeeding and NCD prevention go hand-in-hand. As we normalise the act of breastfeeding, let’s put its benefits front and centre into our policy conversations too and talk more about how breastfeeding can make malnutrition in all its forms and nutrition-related NCDs a thing of the past. 



About the Author

Lucy Martinez Sullivan (@lucymsullivan) is Executive Director of 1,000 Days (@thousanddays), a leading advocacy organisation working in the U.S. and around the world to improve maternal and young child nutrition—particularly during the critical 1,000 day window of opportunity between a woman’s pregnancy and a child’s 2nd birthday. Prior to joining 1,000 Days, Lucy served as Executive Director at CCS, a philanthropic advisory firm, working with clients such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Action Against Hunger and the UN Foundation. She holds a M.B.A. from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. with distinction from the University of Florida. She resides in Washington D.C. with her husband and two young daughters who have turned her professional passion for maternal and young child nutrition into a personal one as well.