Supporting breastfeeding empowers parents to nurture and protect their children

World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated every year during the first week of August to encourage breastfeeding and improve the health of babies and mothers around the world. Breastfeeding provides optimal nutrition for newborns and infants, regardless of whether they live in high- or low-income countries. According to UNICEF, increasing breastfeeding to near-universal levels could save more than 800,000 lives every year, the majority being children under 6 months. Breastfeeding protects the health of women by reducing the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Increased breastfeeding rates could prevent 20,000 maternal deaths each year from breast cancer alone. It also supports healthy brain development that contributes to the cognitive and socioemotional skills that are crucial to prepare children for the jobs of tomorrow.  

Despite the benefits, only 41 percent of infants under six months of age are exclusively breastfed globally. Breastfeeding is a 24/7 job, and women encounter significant obstacles to success. Families, workplaces and society routinely fail to provide needed support. This year’s slogan, Empower Parents, Enable Breastfeeding, promotes the importance of family-friendly policies to enable breastfeeding along with actions that help parents nurture and bond with their children early in life. Supportive policies include paid parental leave to enable exclusive breastfeeding for six months and encourage shared responsibility of caring for children. After returning to work, mothers also need support to continue to provide breastmilk for their children including breastfeeding breaks; privacy and equipment for expressing and storing breastmilk; and affordable childcare.

Support for breastfeeding is one of the smartest investments a country can make. The Global Financing Facility (GFF), a multi-stakeholder partnership to reduce preventable deaths and improve the health of women, children, and adolescents, integrates nutrition into the full continuum of maternal and child health services. Increasing exclusive and continued breastfeeding rates and encouraging child development through improved counseling on infant and young child feeding and early stimulation is a priority area for the GFF and many country investment cases.

In Malawi, less than two-thirds of children (61 percent) are exclusively breastfed (DHS 2015-2016). The GFF-supported Investing in the Early Years Project is prioritizing exclusive breastfeeding and aims to increase the current rate of exclusive breastfeeding to 81 percent by 2024.  The GFF is also supporting Crecer Sano, a project in Guatemala that has prioritized exclusive breastfeeding and where currently only half of all infants 0 to 6 months (53 percent) are exclusively breastfed. The use of exclusive breastfeeding rates as a trigger for release of the project resources to the government supports a results-based approach that helps to ensure that Guatemalan children get the right nutrients at the right time and contributes to the country’s long-standing efforts to reduce child malnutrition and preventable deaths.

And in Cameroon, with financing from the Government of Canada, the GFF, and Nutrition International, a newly launched development impact bond (DIB) will fund the scale up of Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC) to reach more than 2,200 small and sick newborns by 2021. KMC promotes continuous, skin-to-skin contact between caregivers and low birth weight infants along with exclusive and continued breastfeeding to reduce neonatal mortality and improve infant and child growth and development.
What does empowering parents to enable breastfeeding look like closer to home? The experience of a GFF Secretariat staff member traveling to the Africa Region to work with country teams demonstrates what we’re talking about.  To ensure that her infant was fed with breastmilk throughout the week-long separation took the support of the staff member’s spouse and other care providers who hygienically prepared frozen breastmilk for the baby; her employer’s  provision of breaks to pump and store breastmilk during the workshop; willingness of the hotel kitchen staff to store the pumped breastmilk in their freezer; and the at-times confused, but ultimately supportive assistance of airport security teams at multiple airports along the way who agreed to permit the cooler of frozen breastmilk to travel back to the USA. And this same enabling environment is needed at home to ensure the uninterrupted supply of breastmilk every day for her baby.

We have a collective responsibility to empower parents to breastfeed and nurture their children.  It will take the support of governments, employers and communities to deliver on one of the most powerful interventions we have available to ensure that children survive, thrive and grow up to transform the world.