Photo: Fabien Touzard for Action Against Hunger, Cameroon.
Breastfeeding has been called “the ultimate natural vaccine” for babies—boosting their immune systems and delivering vital nutrients to support long-term health as well as proper physical and cognitive development. Educating and supporting mothers and caregivers to boost the nutrition of infants through breastfeeding is a major component of Action Against Hunger’s health and nutrition programs around the world.
World Breastfeeding Week is August 1st-7th. In the Q+A below, Angeline Grant, Action Against Hunger’s Senior Health and Nutrition Advisor (aka our health and nutrition expert), explains how the seemingly simple act of encouraging mothers to breastfeed their newborns could achieve astounding outcomes in the fight against hunger. Angeline also highlights the reasons breastfeeding and feeding practices for infants and young children are critical in a crisis, and how Action Against Hunger promotes breastfeeding as part of its broader programs to prevent malnutrition and improve child survival.
Why is breastfeeding so important and why is it a part of Action Against Hunger’s work?
As a leader in the fight against hunger and malnutrition, we save the lives of malnourished children around the world. At the heart of Action Against Hunger’s mission is our work to protect, promote, and support good nutrition and healthy child development around the world, in both emergency and non-emergency situations. Breastfeeding has a number of vital benefits for child and maternal health and therefore the promotion of breastfeeding is a central aspect of our work.
What is the recent evidence that supports the benefits of breastfeeding?
In 2016, the renowned medical journal, The Lancet published a new series on the subject, providing the most in-depth analysis so far into the health and economic benefits that breastfeeding can produce. The child health and development benefits of breastfeeding range from fewer infections, increased cognitive ability, and probable longer-term protection against diabetes and obesity. Breastfeeding can confer health benefits to mothers as well – The Lancet estimates that 20,000 maternal deaths could be averted each year through universal breastfeeding, and that the practice reduces the risk of post-partum hemorrhage and the risk of cancer.
Photo: Action Against Hunger, Peru
What does the evidence tell us about best practices for breastfeeding?
Exclusive breastfeeding until a baby is six months old and continued breastfeeding until age two is considered one of most effective child survival interventions in preventing under-five mortality. Early initiation of breastfeeding is also very important: it reduces the risk of neonatal and post-neonatal death and has a significant impact on reducing morbidity and mortality from diarrhea and pneumonia, two of the leading causes of child mortality in lower-income countries. In fact, the World Health Organization recommends that new mothers start breastfeeding their children within an hour of birth – something our teams in Nigeria recently had a chance to witness firsthand.
Why do mothers around the world need to be educated about breastfeeding? Isn’t this something most people already know about and understand?
The rates of breastfeeding vary a great deal depending on the country and context. Although breastfeeding is a cultural norm in many of the areas where Action Against Hunger works, mothers and caregivers often have little access to health care or information about how to feed babies and young children to meet their unique nutritional needs to ensure proper growth and development.
In many of the world’s poorest and least developed countries, it is common for mothers and caregivers to feed infants under the age of six months water, solid food, or traditional medicines in addition to breastmilk. Feeding children under the age of six months solid food or liquid, which their delicate developing systems cannot absorb or digest, is unsafe and harmful and can be a major cause of diarrhea. Poor breastfeeding and inadequate feeding practices are a major cause of illness and death among infants and young children in sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia.
Photo: Guy Calaf for Action Against Hunger, Cambodia
How does Action Against Hunger encourage mothers to breastfeed and ensure that their babies and young children get the nutrition they need to thrive?
Promoting breastfeeding (early initiation of breastfeeding, exclusive breastfeeding until six months, and prolonged breastfeeding) – along with broader infant and young child feeding best practices – is core to our nutrition and health programs. Action Against Hunger uses a number of different approaches to encourage mothers to breastfeed their infants and to ensure they feed their young children the right foods to meet their special nutritional needs.
Our approach depends on the context, to be sure we tailor the solution to local challenges and situations families are experiencing in their communities. These can include giving pregnant women and new mothers tailored, individual breastfeeding and infant and young child feeding (IYCF) coaching and education sessions when they visit health facilities as part of their routine check-ups and follow up care. In many communities, we support hospitals and health centres to implement the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative and ensure that mothers receive support and education about breastfeeding as part of their routine follow-up care after they give birth.
Action Against Hunger also supports peer support groups in communities to educate pregnant women and new mothers about proper nutrition and care and feeding practices for babies and young children. These peer groups include mother-to-mother support groups and “care groups,” facilitated by Action Against Hunger’s nutrition team, to coach and teach mothers and caregivers in a supportive environment.
Photo: Lys Arango for Action Against Hunger, Senegal
How do Action Against Hunger’s breastfeeding support programs change for communities facing a crisis?
In emergencies—such as the massive hunger crises driven by the conflicts in northeast Nigeria and South Sudan—pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children under the age of five are extremely vulnerable to malnutrition. They have been forced to flee violence and abandon their homes, possessions, and crops, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs. In such emergencies, Action Against Hunger provides special programs to ensure that pregnant women, nursing mothers, or new mothers who have been displaced or who are facing severe food shortages receive breastfeeding counselling, healthcare services to improve their nutrition, or food or cash distributions to ensure they are able to meet their daily food needs.
What are three things the world needs to know about breastfeeding?
The Lancet series mentioned above highlights some astounding economic and health benefits associated with breastfeeding. Here are three important facts that people may not know about:
- Every year, 820,000 children’s lives could be saved with increased breastfeeding rates, a nearly 13 percent reduction in all deaths worldwide among children under-five.
- The estimated health benefits of breastfeeding translate to reduced annual healthcare costs totaling $312 million in the US, $48 million in the UK, $6 million in Brazil and $30.3 million in urban China.
- Breastfeeding helps prepare children for a prosperous future. Globally, the estimated economic costs of lower cognitive ability associated with not breastfeeding amount to about $300 billion annually (representing 0.49% of global gross national income, or GNI).
- High-income countries lose more than $230 billion annually (0.53% of GNI) due to low rates of breastfeeding.
- Low- and middle-income countries lose more than $70 billion annually (0.39% of GNI) due to low rates of breastfeeding.
Photo: Titus Mung’ou for Action Against Hunger, Kenya
Promoting breastfeeding and helping mothers become nutrition champions in northeast Nigeria.
How one simple breastfeeding technique saved baby Mohamed in Sierra Leone.
How we helped babies get breast milk in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan.
Help us reach the 820,000 children whose lives could be saved with increased breastfeeding.