There’s no question that breastfeeding provides countless health benefits to infants and mothers alike, but a new study claims that breast milk is actually a lifesaver. The international humanitarian and development agency Save the Children’s latest report “Superfood for Babies“ estimates the lives of 830,000 babies could be saved if all women around the world breastfed their newborns immediately after birth.
The kerfuffle last year over Time magazine’s cover story Are You Mom Enough? obscured the real issue (and was ultimately denigrating not only to mothers and the choices we make, but to women in general), but Save the Children’s parody of that cover, shown here, hits home.
“Last year we saw a lot of handwringing in this country over how long is too long for moms to breastfeed. But the real scandal is that many moms around the world don’t get the support they need to start breastfeeding early — or even at all. It’s a choice all moms should have and in the developing world it can literally be a matter of life or death for their babies,” said Carolyn Miles, President and CEO of Save the Children.
Breastfeeding in the first hour after birth, or “the power hour” as Save the Children calls it, is critical. That’s when the mother produces colostrum, which is packed with nutrition and immune boosters.”It is, to all intents and purposes, a child’s first vaccination – and often makes the difference between life and death,” the report says. Breastfeeding immediately after giving birth more often leads to extended breastfeeding, the organization claims. And if mothers exclusively breastfeed for at least the first six months, her baby is less vulnerable to malnutrition and disease.
The fact is, malnutrition continues to be an underlying cause of child and infant mortality. In 2010, about a third of the seven million child deaths were due, at least in part, to malnutrition. The good news is that there has been substantial progress in reducing child mortality around the world. Five million fewer children died in 2011 than in 1990, and the largest annual decline in childhood death ever recorded was between 2010 and 2011. As the report states “The world is nearing a tipping point, the time at which the eradication of preventable child deaths becomes a real possibility.”
Since Save the Children’s report finds that breastfeeding is central to the fight against malnutrition and infant mortality, why then, don’t all mothers who are able to, breastfeed their babies? Save the Children’s investigation identified four serious barriers:
- Cultural and community pressures; for example, some countries think colostrum is “dirty” and should be thrown away
- A worldwide shortage of skilled health workers to help new mothers
- The lack of maternity leave and supportive workplace policies
- New evidence of direct marketing of formula to mothers and health workers in violation of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes.
Save the Children found, for example, that women who had a skilled attendant at birth were twice as likely to initiate breastfeeding within the first critical hour. But with an estimated global shortage of three million health care workers, a third of mothers give birth with no skilled health worker present.
The organization also looked at policies in 38 industrialized countries. While most provide the recommended two thirds pay during maternity leave, it’s astonishing that in the United States, for example, there is still no requirement that new mothers be paid while on maternity leave.
Perhaps the report’s most appalling finding is the aggressive marketing of breast milk substitutes. Save the Children estimates the baby food industry is worth more than $36 billion today. In the next two years, that number is predicted to rise by 31%. Baby formula accounts for the majority of the industry, to the tune of $25 billion.
In an effort to set standards for and regulate the use of formula around the world, in 1981 the World Health Assembly established the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes. Today’s provisions include that health workers are not allowed to hand out free samples, nor are they allowed to receive bonuses in exchange for promoting formula. In addition, the Code stipulates a ban on advertising formula and formula products. 84 countries have enacted legislation to date.
Save the Children looked into practices in 12 countries, which included original polling in Pakistan and China. 40 percent of the mothers interviewed in China claimed they had been contacted directly by baby food company representatives. In Pakistan, one third of health professionals surveyed said they’d been visited by a representative of a breast milk substitute company, and one tenth said they had received free samples of formula, nipples or bottles.
The International Baby Food Action Network found that in Sri Lanka, companies have been operating an incentives scheme for midwives, which include offers of money and foreign travel in exchange for selling baby formula to new mothers.
The report “specifically calls for an end to industry lobbying for the watering down of legislation on BMS [breast milk substitute] marketing and for some BMS companies to stop targeting health workers.”
We conclude by arguing that much more emphasis must be given to breastfeeding as part of global efforts to improve child survival. We make recommendations for all actors including policy-makers in low-income countries, donor governments, companies that manufacture substitutes for breast milk and the multilateral institutions and processes that are under way in 2013. All of these players have a responsibility to take action on breastfeeding and achieve the progress needed. If the right steps are taken we could see an end to preventable child deaths in our lifetime.
This is not just a developing world versus the developed world problem. Yes, the issues of malnutrition impact the developing word far more acutely, than they do, in say, the United States, but there’s the very real issue of the stigma still attached to breastfeeding, one of which the Time magazine cover took full advantage. Couple that with the fact that American mothers have the weakest protections in the industrialized world when it comes to maternity leave policies, and it’s no wonder that breastfeeding is often perceived as controversial. The good news is that just over a week ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that breastfeeding rates in the U.S. are rising, the bad news is that the report also warns that American mothers are not getting the support they need if they choose to breastfeed.
“Women everywhere should have all the support and information they need to make the best choices for themselves for the health and survival of their children,” Miles said.
As Save the Children points out, “breastfeeding saves lives. It’s the closest thing there is to a ‘silver bullet’ in the fight against malnutrition and newborn deaths.” We need to do everything possible to support mothers who want to breastfeed their babies.
Save the Children is calling on Americans to tell Secretary of State John Kerry to renew the U.S. commitment to the 1,000 Days Partnership, a critical 2010 global nutrition initiative which is set to expire this coming June. You can check it out here.
All images courtesy of Save the Children