Breastfeeding: A Smart Investment for Reaching the Sustainable Development Goals

This blog originally appeared on the Investing in Health Blog on August 4, 2016

This year’s World Breastfeeding Week calls attention to the powerful link between investing in breastfeeding and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The most obvious benefit of breastfeeding is that it provides optimal nutrition for newborns and infants, regardless of whether they live in high- or low-income countries. It acts as a baby’s first vaccine and when done exclusively for the first six months of an infant’s life, as recommended by the World Health Organization, it can significantly improve the health, development and survival of children. Increasing breastfeeding worldwide would prevent over 820,000 child deaths each year.

Breastfeeding also 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.

Fighting hunger while improving nutrition, health and wellbeing through breastfeeding brings us closer to achieving Sustainable Development Goals 2 and 3. But what about the others?

Breastfeeding also contributes to gains in education and economic development, reductions in poverty, and sustainable development (Sustainable Development Goals 1, 4, 8, and 10). Optimal breastfeeding is a crucial component of the World Bank Group’s recent push to invest in the early years of every child’s life to support the development of “gray matter infrastructure” and contribute to the cognitive and socioemotional skills that are crucial to prepare children for the jobs of tomorrow.  There is as much as a 3 to 4 point IQ increase among children and adolescents who are breastfed, which leads to better performance in school and greater productivity in the workplace.

Despite the benefits, less than 40 percent of infants under six months of age are exclusively breastfed across the globe. Breastfeeding is a 24/7 job, and women encounter significant obstacles to success--from insufficient lactation counseling to a lack of time and privacy. Fathers, workplaces and society routinely fail to provide needed support, such as assistance with household chores or child care, providing paid maternity leave or creating lactation rooms in workplaces.

Support for breastfeeding is one of the smartest investments a country can make. The Global Financing Facility (GFF), a multi-stakeholder partnership to improve the health of women, children, and adolescents, is systematically moving countries toward the achievement of the 2025 World Health global target of raising the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months to at least 50 percent.  The GFF is an essential financing vehicle to accelerate and align support for country-led plans to scale up crucial health, nutrition and population services for all infants, women, and children.

For example, in Cameroon, where malnutrition rates have remained high—with very little change—for over 20 years, the GFF’s Investment Case promotes optimal infant and young child feeding practices, including exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life. A development impact bond supports the scale-up of Kangaroo Mother Care, which promotes continuous, skin-to-skin contact between caregivers and low birth weight infants and breastfeeding, to reduce neonatal mortality and improve infant growth and development.

Other GFF countries have recognized the critical importance of breastfeeding to national development and set targets for increasing rates. Tanzania’s Investment Case (One Plan II) calls for a significant hike in the initiation of breastfeeding within one hour after a mother gives birth: from 49 percent to 80 percent.  A seemingly small intervention, but one that can prevent a significant number of neonatal deaths in developing countries.

Breastfeeding rates can be dramatically improved within a short time frame, but not without collective action. By taking action now, we can not only the improve health and survival of women and infants: we can come closer to realizing the aims of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Leslie Elder

Leslie Elder is a Senior Nutrition Specialist with the Global Financing Facility and leads the SecureNutrition Knowledge Platform at the World Bank Group. Her technical expertise includes infant, young child, maternal, and adolescent nutrition, in addition to broader issues of safe motherhood and maternal and child health. She began her career as a pediatric, neonatal, and ob/gyn nurse. After graduate work at Johns Hopkins University, she worked at the Bank, John Snow, Inc, and the Academy for Educational Development. Immediately prior to joining the Bank in 2009 in her current role, Leslie was Senior Director, Newborn Health, and the Deputy Director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded Saving Newborn Lives program at Save the Children/US. She has lived and worked in India and Nepal with additional technical program experience in Bolivia, Guatemala, Malawi, Indonesia, Uganda, and Ethiopia, among other countries.