What would happen if nearly every mother around the world breastfed her babies? Great things, new evidence suggests.
Millions of children and mothers worldwide are missing out on the potential health benefits of breastfeeding. At least that's the main finding of a new global analysis on the practice.
This analysis found that only 1 in every 5 children living in a high-income country is breastfed to age 12 months, and only 1 in 3 children living in either a low- or middle-income country is breastfed exclusively for the first six months of life. By increasing breastfeeding to almost universal levels worldwide, researchers said an estimated 800,000 child deaths and 20,000 breast cancerdeaths could be prevented each year.
"There is a widespread misconception that the benefits of breastfeeding only relate to poor countries," said lead study author Cesar Victora, MD, PhD, a professor of public health at Harvard University, in a press release. "Nothing could be further from the truth. Our work for this series clearly shows that breastfeeding saves lives and money in all countries, rich and poor alike. Therefore, the importance of tackling the issue globally is greater than ever."
Dr. Victora and team compiled data from 28 separate reviews — 22 of which were commissioned specifically for the analysis. They found that breastfeeding had health benefits for both mother and child, and also dramatically affected life expectancy.
In high-income countries, breastfeeding lowered the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) by more than a third.SIDS is the sudden, unexplained death of a child younger than 1.
It also cut half of all diarrhea episodes and a third of all respiratory infections among babies in both low- and middle-income countries.
Past research has linked breastfeeding to higher intelligence and a lower risk of obesity and diabetes in children. The practice has also been linked to a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancer in mothers.
Aside from the potential health benefits, Dr. Victora and team found that breastfeeding may have significant economic benefits. Researchers said that, if breastfeeding rates for babies younger than 6 months were increased to 90 percent, it could save the US healthcare system an estimated $2.5 billion annually.
Despite these clear benefits, global breastfeeding rates remain low — particularly in high-income countries.
"There is a widespread misconception that breast milk can be replaced with artificial products without detrimental consequences,” Dr. Victora said.
Although the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (BMS) was adopted in 1981 to protect the public from misleading breastfeeding advertisements, it has been poorly implemented, according to Dr. Victora and team. As a result, efforts to boost breastfeeding worldwide are commonly curbed by aggressive marketing from companies that make breast milk substitutes.
In spite of this, researchers said this analysis should leave no doubt that the underuse of breast milk has long-term negative effects on the health, nutrition and development of both women and children worldwide.
This study was published Jan. 28 in the journal The Lancet.