When available, breastfeeding is shown to be the healthiest choice for babies and mothers, but women don’t always have the option available to them.
The Global Breastfeeding Collective — led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF) — is trying to change that by calling on governments to offer mothers more breastfeeding support.
“Together, through commitment, concerted action, and collaboration, we can ensure that every mother has access to skilled breastfeeding counseling, empowering her to give her baby the best possible start in life,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, and WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, explained in a joint statement.
Breastfeeding not only benefits children and mothers emotionally and nutritionally but also supports a sustainable food system and economies, according to the United Nations. The natural process protects infants from deadly diseases, especially in the first six months of life, and reduces the risk of ovarian and breast cancer in women. Increasing rates of breastfeeding could save the lives of 820,000 children every year, the report said.
Despite the benefits, only 40% of children younger than six months are fed breast milk exclusively, and only 23 countries had breastfeeding rates above 60% in 2017. Many women living in poverty fear they are too malnourished to nurse their children when their milk is still the better alternative to baby formula.
Mothers need support to start breastfeeding and continue, according to the Breastfeeding Collective. Quality counseling services can assist mothers and families by providing information, advice, and the confidence they need to feed their babies. With counseling, mothers can also address the barriers preventing them from breastfeeding and breastfeed longer, Fore and Tedros said.
Mothers can receive breastfeeding counseling from lactation counselors and peer support from a range of places, whether in person or remotely at health care centers, at home, or through community programs.
The Breastfeeding Collective stresses the importance of finding innovative ways to guarantee breastfeeding services are available during the COVID-19 pandemic when women and children have limited access to health care. They are asking governments to commit to ensuring that all women and children can benefit from breastfeeding.
The Breastfeeding Collective outlined five critical steps for leaders to take. First, they must invest in breastfeeding counseling and train health care workers in providing the service. Then they must improve access to counseling and incorporate it in standard, easily accessible health and nutrition services. By working with communities and health care providers, governments can provide counseling and reduce the prevalence of baby food as the default decision for new mothers.