Breastfeeding Could Save So Many Lives, But There’s a Problem

What if there was one thing that could prevent death, improve health, and boost the economy? Breastfeeding is that thing, according to researchers. We’re talking about 820,000 deaths prevented each year, and a savings to the global economy of $300 billion. That is, if we could lift breastfeeding rates, especially in high-income countries like the US and the UK.

The first of a two-part paper is published in The Lancet. This is what the researchers found:

Breastfeeding Benefits Families

About 820,000 child deaths could be prevented annually (87% would be infants under 6 months old) by improving breastfeeding rates. That’s in addition to the lives already saved by current breastfeeding practices.

In high-income countries, breastfeeding reduces the risk of sudden infant deaths by more than a third.

In low-and middle-income countries, about half of all diarrhea episodes and a third of respiratory infections could be avoided by breastfeeding.

Children who are breastfed longer:

  • gain some protection against obesity and diabetes later in life
  • have fewer dental malocclusions
  • tend to have higher intelligence

For mothers, longer-duration breastfeeding:

  • reduces the risks of type 2 diabetes, ovarian cancer, and breast cancer — about 20,000 breast cancer deaths are prevented each year by breastfeeding — improved rates could prevent another 20,000 deaths each year
  • improves birth spacing

Breastfeeding Benefits Economies

The costs of lower cognitive ability associated with not breastfeeding add up to more than $300 billion a year.

Boosting breastfeeding rates for infants below 6 months of age to 90% in the USA, China, and Brazil and to 45% in the UK would cut treatment costs of common childhood illnesses such as pneumonia, diarrhea and asthma. It would save healthcare systems at least $2.45 billion (US) in the USA, $29.5 million (US) in the UK, $223.6 million (US) in China, and $6.0 million (US) in Brazil.

There Are Too Many Obstacles To Breastfeeding

Maternity leave is extremely limited or nonexistent in the US, significantly increasing the odds that a mother won’t continue to breastfeed.

There is a lack of information and support from healthcare providers.

There is a lack of family and community support.

A Lancet editorial asks, “Despite consolidation of evidence for breastfeeding’s benefits in recent years, in particular the economic gains to be reaped, global action has stalled. Why has so little progress been made?”

It goes on to say the obstacles mothers face are not trivial, and “genuine and urgent commitment is needed from governments and health authorities to establish a new normal: where every woman can expect to breastfeed, and to receive every support she needs to do so.”

For more information about the research, visit The Lancet Breastfeeding Series and Breastfeeding in the 21st century: epidemiology, mechanisms, and lifelong effect.

My Two Cents

To breastfeed or not to breastfeed is a personal decision. Some mothers would rather not, and that’s their business. Others cannot, for a variety of reasons. There’s no shame in breastfeeding or in not breastfeeding, or at least there shouldn’t be.

Breastfeeding is good for babies, moms, and the bottom line. Unfortunately, our culture is still reluctant to accept breastfeeding as a natural part of everyday life. It’s mind boggling, really, that something this good should be so difficult.


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