Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

World Breastfeeding Week 2011: Spread the Word to Save a Life!

August 04, 2011

This week is World Breastfeeding Week. Supporting breastfeeding for women around the world is something we should all do! How?

Breastfeeding received a major boost last month when Nic Kristoff wrote about just how important breastfeeding is for newborn survival, globally, in his New York Times op-ed. It's not an overstatement to say, as our Family Health program leaders note in their blog post, that exclusive breastfeeding (feeding a baby only breastmilk without supplementing with other liquids or foods) is the most effective way to save a baby's life.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and, in fact, all major medical organizations recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, followed by continued breastfeeding (though not exclusively) for the first year and beyond.

But throughout the world the majority of infants are not exclusively breastfed for the first few months of life. Rates are particularly low in regions of Africa where in some countries, like Nigeria for example, approximately 2 percent of infants are exclusively breastfed. In other areas of the world, throughout Asia, rates are also quite low, though increasing steadily.

In the United States? 74 percent of women breastfeed their infants at birth - yet only 12 percent continue to do so, exclusively, at the six month mark.

So, what's the deal?

There are a host of cultural, economic and informational barriers we all must work to remove in order to increase rates of breastfeeding. It’s the reason World Breastfeeding Week is so important – and why all of our participation is as well. What can we do?

As our experts here at the foundation note, there is a lot of work to be done (though much work is already being done, thanks to partners like Alive & Thrive) to educate and communicate to women in the developing world about the nutritional value of breastmilk. Breastmilk meets all of a newborn's nutritional needs in the first six months of life - including hydration needs. But it's not only about communicating the facts as we have them. It's about encouraging societal shifts when it comes to the ways in which societies around the world think about breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding needs to be prioritized as a value, not only for mothers and newborns, but for entire communities — including health care providers. This, of course, means training providers as well. Breastfeeding also needs to be, as the sponsor of World Breastfeeding Week, the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) notes (PDF), normalized thoughout societies.

Alive & Thrive, as I noted above, supports a host of creative and dynamic campaigns around the world; to implement mobile messaging in Kenya and India, for breastfeeding support; to provide breastfeeding support via cell phones for women in Nigeria and Honduras; and to promote fathers' involvement in encouraging optimal feeding for newborns,in Vietnam.  

World Breastfeeding Week is, at its heart, a chance to talk about both maternal and newborn health and survival. Don't forget - breastfeeding is also an important maternal health tool, as well. Breastfeeding helps with child-spacing and there is evidence that it reduces the risk of breast and other cancers in women.

But maybe one of the coolest things I've read thus far, about breastfeeding worldwide, is this, direct from WABA:

"Mother's milk is the ultimate indigenous food; locally made, sustainably available...and requring no foreign exchange for importation..."

There really is no better reason, though, than the simplest one of all: exclusive breastfeeding saves babies' lives. It's why World Breastfeeding Week is an incredible tool in our hefty "saving newborn lives" toolkit here at the foundation.

We can all share the responsibility, though. Visit the World Breastfeeding Week site to see how you can get involved.

Spread the word to save a life, right?

 
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