Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Celebrating the Simple, Lifesaving Act of Breastfeeding

August 30, 2010

This week, I’ll be blogging every day about the Millennium Development Goals, the focus of our upcoming TEDxChange event. Today I want to focus on the importance of exclusive breastfeeding. Because of the increased number of mothers who are breastfeeding, more young children are surviving and thriving.

Breastfeeding is one of the best things a mother can do for her child, no matter where in the world she lives. But in many developing countries, breastfeeding is more than a smart decision—it can be a lifesaving choice.

Exclusive breastfeeding—when the infant is fed only with breast milk and no other food or drink—helps ensure proper nutrition, supports the baby’s immune system, and lowers the risk of acute respiratory infections, diarrhea, and other serious diseases that can threaten newborn lives in the world’s poorest countries. Breastfeeding has the potential to prevent the deaths of an estimated 1.4 million children under age 5 in the developing world. Bolstering nutrition contributes to Millennium Development Goal 4, reducing child deaths.

Earlier this year, I visited the Dowa District Hospital in Dowa, Malawi, where exclusive breastfeeding is a core part of a successful government program supported by Save the Children’s Saving Newborn Lives program. Through this effort, women in Dowa are encouraged to give birth in a health clinic, and then receive three home visits from frontline healthcare workers in the first week after their babies are born. These visits help mothers learn the best ways to care for their babies, including exclusive breastfeeding. I saw firsthand how the program is making a major difference by empowering women to make healthy choices for themselves and their babies.

Dowa’s program is just one example of why breastfeeding programs are among the best investments in global health. Globally, major progress has already been made: Exclusive breastfeeding rates have increased by 15 percent since the early 1990s, due in part to the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative, an effort by UNICEF and the World Health Organization to ensure that all maternity facilities become centers of breastfeeding support.

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