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UNICEF urges strong leadership to promote life-saving practice of breastfeeding

A mother breastfeeds her child in Tanzania.
UN Photo/B. Wolff
A mother breastfeeds her child in Tanzania.

UNICEF urges strong leadership to promote life-saving practice of breastfeeding

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) kicked off World Breastfeeding Week today by calling for strong leadership to promote a practice that is the most effective and inexpensive way to save a child’s life.

“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.”

Strong leadership is essential, the agency pointed out in a news release, because less than half of all children under the age of six months benefit from exclusive breastfeeding, despite the many advantages it provides for both children and mothers.

World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated annually from 1 to 7 August in more than 170 countries to encourage breastfeeding and improve the health of babies around the world. It commemorates the Innocenti Declaration made by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) in August 1990 to protect, promote and support breastfeeding.

Both UNICEF and WHO recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a child’s life and continued breastfeeding for two years or beyond.

Children who are exclusively breastfed are 14 times more likely to survive the first six months of life than non-breastfed children, UNICEF stated, adding that starting breastfeeding in the first day after birth can reduce the risk of newborn 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 ill much less often than non-breastfed children.

In addition, 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 also experience less post-partum depression and have a lower risk of ovarian and breast cancers later in life, said UNICEF.

And yet, 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,” UNICEF stated.

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, the agency noted.

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 to raise awareness and support for breastfeeding.

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.

Meanwhile, 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,” said UNICEF. “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.”