We have recently celebrated World Breastfeeding Week, which runs from the 1st to the 7th of August each year and is observed in over 170 countries.
We are consistently told by health professionals and government agencies that exclusive breastfeeding until the age of 6 months is the best way to feed our children, but very little is said about the actual dangers of not doing so. As a society, we are very concerned about offending people and upsetting others based on their choices and circumstances, and so the true importance of exclusive breastfeeding is often sidelined.
However, as a part of their commitment to encouraging mothers to breastfeed, the World Health Organisation (WHO) have released statistics supporting the benefits of breastfeeding and indeed the dangers of formula feeding. Dr Elizabeth Mason, who is the director of WHO’s Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Development has stated that if all babies and children were breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months of life, and then continued to be breastfed alongside a healthy balanced diet until at least 2 years of age, 1.5million lives of children under 5 would be saved.
Of course, there are many variables that these statistics do not allow for — for example, in countries where food is scarce and healthcare is poor. However, when you take into consideration the remarkably low number of children that are exclusively breastfed until 6 months of age, let alone any time past that, you can see the benefit on child health that an increase in breastfeeding would bring. In the UK, it has been statistically estimated that the National Health Service (NHS) would save over £2million every single year in treating children with diarrhoea and vomiting if just 10% more babies were exclusively breastfed until 6 months of age.
The WHO, along with children’s charity UNICEF, has made a list of necessary breastfeeding protocol called the “Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding” which is currently implemented in hospitals in more than 150 countries. The list includes avoiding separating the mother and baby, encouraging breastfeeding within half an hour of birth, and training staff to be able to support breastfeeding mums correctly. However, the breastfeeding rates worldwide are not improving much so clearly something else needs to be done. Breastfeeding support in most large hospitals is usually very poor, despite the apparent training requirement.
What do you think the WHO and local governments could do to help more mothers breastfeed for longer?