Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

World Breastfeeding Week: Looking Beyond 2015

August 06, 2014

This week, mothers and advocates across the world – from Singapore to Tennessee – are taking action to promote and celebrate the extraordinary benefits of breastfeeding as part of World Breastfeeding Week.

When it comes to breastfeeding, there is much to celebrate. Early initiation of breastfeeding (within the first hour of birth), followed by exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months and continued breast feeding for 24 months and beyond, has lifelong benefits for children. In fact, it is one of the smartest investments we can make in child survival and development, with the potential to save 800,000 children’s lives annually and provide increased immunity and nutrition to millions more.

This year’s World Breastfeeding Week comes at a particularly important time, with world leaders set to enter into the final year of negotiations around the post-2015 framework next month at the United Nations General Assembly.

As a successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which will expire at the end of 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will serve as our next roadmap for fighting poverty and disease globally. Since 2000, the MDGs have rallied action and leveraged additional resources to tackle poverty and disease, and have provided us with a global framework to track and evaluate our progress. The post-2015 goals stand to play an equally powerful role in steering the global health and development agenda over the next 15 years.

Earlier this year, the foundation called for sustainable agriculture, food security, and nutrition to be prioritized within the post-2015 goals.  We were encouraged to see that the recently finalized Outcome Document from the Open Working Group  mentions nutrition and stunting – but the omission of breastfeeding is a serious shortcoming. As the post-2015 goals discussions move forward next month, it is critical that world leaders add breastfeeding to the agenda and include an indicator to increase the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the first 6 months to reach 60 percent by 2030.

Inluding breastfeeding in the post-2015 framework will serve as widespread acknowledgement of the vital role it plays in the broader food security agenda, and will further highlight breastfeeding as a key to unlocking progress towards many of the other goals and targets being discussed within the post-2015 goals (including the prevention of newborn deaths, as this brochure from WHO and UNICEF details).

Most importantly, securing a place for breastfeeding within the post-2015 goals will ensure that it continues to be a priority over the next 15 years. While the practice of breastfeeding is as old as humanity itself, evidence shows that increasing rates takes dedicated support and action. In many countries, mothers face significant barriers to breastfeeding – including a lack of awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding, a lack of access to counseling on how to breastfeed, and restrictions on time at home with their newborns. As a result, the global average for exclusive breastfeeding was estimated to be just 37 percent during 2006-2010 (the latest year for which we have available data).

We know that these barriers can be overcome. In Viet Nam, for example, the Alive & Thrive initiative found that many mothers were not exclusively breastfeeding in their babies’ first 6 months because they needed to return to work or had come across misinformation about infant feeding. Alive & Thrive engaged local advocates, medical professionals, and health leaders to reverse this trend through an integrated communications and advocacy campaign. This engagement quickly led to higher rates of counseling for new mothers, and a vote by the Vietnamese government to extend paid maternity leave to six months. As a result, breastfeeding rates tripled in program areas – increasing from 19-63 percent.

Through programs and policies tailored to meet local needs and opportunities, we know these results can be replicated in other countries around the world. Data from the initial phase of Alive & Thrive is now informing the expansion of efforts to additional countries in Africa and South Asia.

Setting an ambitious yet achievable global target for exclusive breastfeeding rates of 60 percent in the post-2015 goals will help rally the global momentum needed to achieve even more local victories.

This World Breastfeeding Week, let’s set our sights on that goal – and give ourselves even more to celebrate next year.

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