by Heidi Green
February 22, 2013
Is breast milk a “superfood”? It may sound overblown, but that’s the case being made by Save the Children, an international and independent child advocacy group, in its new report, Superfood for Babies: How overcoming barriers to breastfeeding will save children’s lives.
The facts are compelling: Malnutrition was at the heart of nearly 7 million child deaths in 2010; worldwide, about 40 percent of children ages 0–5 who die are newborns less than 1 month old; if all mothers breastfed their babies within the first hour after birth, an estimated 830,000 lives could be saved each year.
Pneumonia and diarrhea are two major causes of childhood death in poorer countries that lack of clean water and antibiotics, and colostrum, the mother’s first milk, provides an “immune system booster” that protects against these diseases. The goal here is for “every infant [to be] given breast milk immediately after birth and … fed only breast milk for the first six months” and for breastfeeding to continue, alongside complementary foods, for up to 2 years or beyond. It’s a goal the World Health Organization (WHO) has been touting for decades. Why is it, then, that the global proportion of children breastfed exclusively for six months has, according to Save the Children, gone from just 32 percent in 1995 to 39 percent in 2010?
The group identifies four barriers to breastfeeding:
- Pressure from community and culture. Many women worldwide feel pressure to follow infant feeding traditions, such as not breastfeeding until their “real milk” (post-colostrum milk) comes in or giving their babies breast milk substitutes (e.g., tea, ash, sugar water). Many are not involved in the decision-making process about how their baby will be fed; husbands, mothers-in-law, or community leaders may hold the power.
- Lack of skilled health workers. Many mothers do not have a skilled health worker for prenatal care or even during labor; many give birth alone. These mothers miss out on a potentially important source of breastfeeding knowledge and support.
- Lack of maternity legislation. Mothers should have, at bare minimum, 14 weeks of maternity leave; 18 weeks is recommended. They should receive compensation of at least two-thirds their usual pay during this time, and stipends or grants should be available to mothers who work informally.
- Infant formula marketing. In part due to reduced sales in the United States and Europe (where breastfeeding rates have been on the rise), many marketers of infant formula have turned their attention to developing countries. Violations of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes are widespread, with formula makers targeting women and health care workers alike.
Some question the relevance of this report for first-world countries. Yes, the U.S. falls far short of other nations when it comes to maternity leave, but health workers are available and mothers stateside are ostensibly in control of decision-making about their baby’s feeding. Consider the headline-grabbing response to the report by U.K. author Clare Byam-Cook: “Babies dying in the Third World have nothing to do with babies being formula-fed in Britain.”
The fact is even though we are an ocean’s distance from third-world mothers and babies we can still help.
This report is to be a “call to action for the world to rediscover the importance of breastfeeding and for a commitment to support mothers to breastfeed”—everywhere. Here’s what individuals anywhere in the world can do:
- Speak up! Breastfeeding should be at the heart of efforts to improve infant and child nutrition, Save the Children asserts. When it isn’t, we can call attention to its absence. We’ve seen this here in the U.S. Although First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign initially did not include breastfeeding as a nutrition strategy, the program was developed at about the same time as Surgeon General Regina Benjamin’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding, which did acknowledge a connection between these topics. The final version of the Let’s Move framework does include breastfeeding among its obesity prevention strategies.
- Support. Provide support for programs that serve to empower women in third world countries. Efforts to support breastfeeding will have to involve fathers, other family members, and community leaders; messages will need to be disseminated throughout communities.
- Advocate. Call for national policies and legislation to support paid maternity leave and workplace accommodations for breastfeeding mothers. Let your hospital or clinic know that it’s important that they support breastfeeding mothers. And sign the petition to call out infant formula makers and marketers for undermining breastfeeding in third world countries.
Save the Children is hopeful that breastfeeding support can make a difference, and help eradicate preventable child deaths. That would be an amazing feat indeed, even for a “superfood.”