We’re not breastfeeding long enough to pass on the full benefits to our children
Updated: May 5
Women are not breastfeeding long enough to pass on the full benefits to their babies.
Fewer women breastfeed in high-income countries in comparison to low and middle-income countries.
A small study says this may be due to the “convenience” of formula feeding.
A global increase in breastfeeding would prevent more than 800,000 child deaths each year.
To turn the statistics around we need to offer women more support: from society, workplaces and the medical profession.
The aggressive marketing of infant formulas should be banned worldwide.
Education is paramount, not just for mothers but the rest of society. Reminding mothers of the benefits of continuing breastfeeding is vital. Also educating the wider community will work towards normalising breastfeeding and making it socially acceptable.
It’s World Breastfeeding Week which really excites me as I have not hidden the fact that I am a breastfeeding advocate. Living in a high-income country like Australia, I was surprised to learn that many women, particularly in western countries, are not breastfeeding long enough to pass on the full benefits to their babies.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding for at least 12 months, while the World Health Organization (WHO) endorses it for up to 2 years or beyond.
Would you believe that only 1 in 5 children in high-income countries, like the U.S, are breastfed to 12 months? In low and middle-income countries, the statistics are much higher, with 1 in 3 children aged 6 to 23 months being exclusively breastfed!
These statistics baffled me! As women are growing up in a technological age where we are more informed than ever on issues around the globe. I thought it was common knowledge how vital breastfeeding is to our health, and even more-so for our offspring. So why are more women, especially in high-income countries, not doing it?
I later came across the results of a small survey which may provide some discussion around why many women are choosing to formula feed their children. I am not sure how reflective the results are of the rest of the population, so they should probably be taken with a grain of salt. However, Perrigo Nutritionals (manufacturer of infant formula in the U.S), conducted a survey of 2,000 mothers with children one to three years of age.
According to their research, “convenience” was the main reason many women choose to formula feed instead of breastfeeding their children. Most mothers said that if they were offered a longer maternity leave, they would have tried to exclusively breastfeed for a longer period. Because of this, “convenience” was the main factor working mums chose to feed their babies formula. More experienced mums also turned to formula, with 75% of mums with two or more children using formula during their baby’s first year due to “convenience”.
Really? For me, it has been much more convenient to pull out my breast when needed. And the idea of more washing and sterilising of bottles isn’t appealing. However, I can see that sometimes breastfeeding has its challenges also. But in my situation, thinking of the many health benefits for my baby outweighs any negatives. Read more about my breastfeeding journey.
So really, if women are not committing to breastfeeding our children because of such a selfish reason like “convenience”, well I cannot fathom that at all. What is our society coming to?
According to the largest, most detailed analysis of breastfeeding in the world, published in The Lancet, a global increase in breastfeeding would prevent more than 800,000 child deaths each year. So, to all the supporters of the ‘Fed is Best’ movement, when you look at the statistics, it is clear that breastfeeding is superior. Obviously, every situation is unique, but that’s what the numbers say. Read more about why I think the ‘Fed is Best’ movement is flawed.
So what do we need to do to turn these statistics around? Offer women more education and support!
Support from society Breastfeeding needs to be normalised more in society. I am appalled at the amount of negativity around breastfeeding in public. Recent TV shows like Yummy Mummies have also not helped the stigma, and the various comments I have read on social media of people bashing breastfeeding mothers makes me sick to the stomach. Let's not forget it is completely legal to breastfeed in public, yet some people don't seem to know this.
Education is vital. In all honesty though, before having children I was one of those people who would look at others who would breastfeed in public and thought it was strange. I blame it on the lack of exposure to breastfeeding growing up and the sexualisation of breasts in the media and popular culture. I had never seen anyone breastfeed in my family so seeing this in public shocked me. Going back in history to communal societies it was completely normal to witness the act, so therefore it was more supported. Times have changed, and so have perceptions. Now we need to change perceptions.
Support from the medical profession It appals me that I have to actually write this, but during my breastfeeding journey, I was astounded at the ill-advice I received from people in the medical profession. Yes, one doctor told me when I had mastitis I shouldn't breast-feed from the affected breast anymore, as the milk was “infected” and would pass to my baby. On a different occasion, another doctor was shocked that I was “still” breastfeeding my 18-month-old, looking at me like there was something wrong with me because I was nursing a toddler.
Support from workplaces Workplaces need to be more supportive of breastfeeding mothers. It should be embedded in HR policies and procedures. A single line inserted in a policy to meet EEO obligations does not count. Workplaces need to actually demonstrate that they are committed to understanding and supporting nursing mothers in the workplace. Also offering mothers a longer maternity leave, or a more flexible work-life balance may encourage more women to exclusively breastfeed for a longer period.
Marketing of infant formulas
Worldwide sales of formula milk are estimated to be worth nearly $US45 billion. We need to end the aggressive marketing of companies manufacturing infant formulas on a global scale, by endorsing the WHO guidelines. These guidelines say breast milk substitutes and milk products for infants from six to 36 months of age "should not be marketed". They say all such products should include clearly visible label information "on the importance of continued breastfeeding for up to two years or beyond and the importance of not introducing complementary feeding before six months of age". This makes perfect sense.
Let’s revisit just some of the benefits of breastfeeding for the baby:
Lowers the risk of sudden infant death syndrome
Prevents diarrhoea episodes
Prevents respiratory infections
Fewer ear infections
Fewer hospitalisations and doctor visits
Lowers risk of allergies and asthma
Encourages a healthy weight range for the child
Increases bonding and makes baby feel secure due to the physical closeness, physical contact, skin-to-skin touching and eye contact
May protect against obesity later in life
May protect against diabetes later in life
Breastfeeding benefits for the mother:
Increased bond with baby
Burns extra calories which may help some women lose their baby weight faster
Helps uterus return to its pre-pregnancy size
Reduces uterine bleeding after birth
Saves time and money due to not needing to buy and measure formula
Reduces breast cancer
Reduces ovarian cancer
Lowers risk of osteoporosis
I hope this article has provided milk for thought (pun intended). Let’s all continue to educate others on the many benefits of breastfeeding and support mothers around the world in their journey. Not just during World Breastfeeding Week, but every other day.
So why do you think more women in high-income countries like the U.S and Australia choose formula so early on? What can we do to encourage women to breastfeed for longer?