20 February 2018
Breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure child health and survival.
If breastfeeding were scaled up to near universal levels, about 820 000 child lives would be saved every year (1). Globally, only 40% of infants under six months of age are exclusively breastfed.
WHO actively promotes breastfeeding as the best source of nourishment for infants and young children. This fact file explores the many benefits of the practice, and how strong support to mothers can increase.
Breastfeeding for the first six months is crucial
WHO recommends that:
- mothers initiate breastfeeding within one hour of birth;
- infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth,
- development and health, and thereafter, to meet their evolving nutritional requirements, infants should receive nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods, while continuing to be breastfed; and
- breastfeeding should continue for up to two years or beyond.
Breastfeeding protects infants from childhood illnesses
Breast milk is the ideal food for newborns and infants. It gives infants all the nutrients they need for healthy development. It is safe and contains antibodies that help protect infants from common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea and pneumonia, the two primary causes of child mortality worldwide. Breast milk is readily available and affordable, which helps to ensure that infants get adequate nutrition.
Breastfeeding also benefits mothers
Exclusive breastfeeding is associated with a natural (though not fail-safe) method of birth control (98% protection in the first six months after birth). It reduces risks of breast and ovarian cancer, type II diabetes, and postpartum depression.
Breastfeeding has long-term benefits for children
Beyond the immediate benefits for children, breastfeeding contributes to a lifetime of good health. Adolescents and adults who were breastfed as babies are less likely to be overweight or obese. They are less likely to have type-II diabetes and perform better in intelligence tests.
Infant formula does not contain the antibodies found in breast milk
The long-term benefits of breastfeeding for mothers and children cannot be replicated with infant formula. When infant formula is not properly prepared, there are risks arising from the use of unsafe water and unsterilized equipment or the potential presence of bacteria in powdered formula. Malnutrition can result from over-diluting formula to “stretch” supplies. While frequent feeding maintains breast milk supply, if formula is used but becomes unavailable, a return to breastfeeding may not be an option due to diminished breast milk production.
Transmission of HIV through breastfeeding can be reduced with drugs
An HIV-infected mother can pass the infection to her infant during pregnancy, delivery and through breastfeeding. However, antiretroviral (ARV) drugs given to either the mother or HIV-exposed infant reduces the risk of transmission. Together, breastfeeding and ARVs have the potential to significantly improve infants’ chances of surviving while remaining HIV uninfected. WHO recommends that when HIV-infected mothers breastfeed, they should receive ARVs and follow WHO guidance for infant feeding.
Marketing of breast-milk substitutes are highly monitored
An international code to regulate the marketing of breast-milk substitutes was adopted in 1981. It calls for:
- all formula labels and information to state the benefits of breastfeeding and the health risks of substitutes;
- no promotion of breast-milk substitutes;
- no free samples of substitutes to be given to pregnant women, mothers or their families; and
- no distribution of free or subsidized substitutes to health workers or facilities.
Support for mothers is essential
Breastfeeding has to be learned and many women encounter difficulties at the beginning. Many routine practices, such as separation of mother and baby, use of newborn nurseries, and supplementation with infant formula, actually make it harder for mothers and babies to breastfeed. Health facilities that support breastfeeding by avoiding these practices and making trained breastfeeding counsellors available to new mothers encourage higher rates of the practice. To provide this support and improve care for mothers and newborns, most countries have implemented the WHO-UNICEF Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative, which sets standards for quality care.
Mothers should continue breastfeeding at work
Many mothers who return to work abandon breastfeeding partially or completely because they do not have sufficient time, or a place to breastfeed, express and store their milk. Mothers need a safe, clean and private place in or near their workplace to continue breastfeeding. Enabling conditions at work, such as paid maternity leave, part-time work arrangements, on-site crèches, facilities for expressing and storing breast milk, and breastfeeding breaks, can help.
Solid foods should be phased in at six months
To meet the growing needs of babies at six months of age, mashed solid foods should be introduced as a complement to continued breastfeeding. Foods for the baby can be specially prepared or modified from family meals. WHO notes that:
- breastfeeding should not be decreased when starting on solids;
- food should be given with a spoon or cup, not in a bottle;
- food should be clean and safe; and
- ample time is needed for young children to learn to eat solid foods.