How breastfeeding can help tackle these 6 global inequalities


Women in the Central African Republic breastfeed  their babies.
Image: Veronique DURRUTY/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

What if mothers could tackle some of the world’s most pervasive problems simply by feeding their babies? Breastfeeding advocates argue they can.

August is Breastfeeding Awareness Month, with the first week dubbed World Breastfeeding Week an annual observance to highlight the benefits of breastfeeding for mothers and infants across the globe. And many of those benefits, advocates say, can help address some of the world’s biggest inequalities.

The Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by the United Nations in September 2015 to diminish the most widespread global issues by 2030, focus heavily on women and children. According to the leading health organizations behind World Breastfeeding Week, breastfeeding can help alleviate some of those burdens.

“A women should not be made to feel guilty if in knowing this information she decides not to breastfeed.”

Globally, less than 40 percent of the world’s children are exclusively breastfed in the first six months of life, a practice that is recommended by the World Health Organization. France Begin, a senior nutrition adviser with UNICEF, says low rates of breastfeeding most likely stem from a lack of knowledge regarding its benefits for both mother and child.

While health advocates like Begin want all mothers to be empowered with information on breastfeeding, she also says it’s essential to respect the decision of each mother on how to nourish her baby.

“Despite this information, a woman may decide not to breastfeed and that decision is to be respected,” Begin tells Mashable. “But this information should be conveyed, and a woman should not be made to feel guilty if, in knowing this information, she decides not to breastfeed.”

To explain how breastfeeding can help address global inequality, we took a look at six big issues that the practice can help tackle.

1. Overall health and well-being

The World Health Organization calls breast milk “the ideal food for newborns and infants,” saying it gives infants all the nutrients they need for healthy development. But breast milk also contains antibodies that help protect babies from common childhood illnesses.

“Just simply breastfeeding can play a role in preventing a lot of the infant illnesses and deaths in many developing countries,” Begin says.

Breastfeeding alone has been shown to curb the rates of diarrhea and pneumonia in infants, two of the primary causes of infant mortality around the globe. Studies also estimate that if all women breastfed within the first hour of life, more than 800,000 infant lives per year could be saved globally.

Breastfeeding not only benefits the overall health of infants, but it also benefits mothers. It has been shown to reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and postpartum depression. Begin also points out that breastfeeding has been proven to help space out births at a sustainable interval for a mother’s health, which is crucial in developing and remote regions that often lack access to methods of family planning.

2. Poverty

Perhaps one of the most obvious benefits of breastfeeding is its low economic toll on household budgets. Raising a child in any global context can be costly and formula costs have an obvious impact on a family’s finances. But breastfeeding is a low-to-no cost way to feed infants, especially in the first six months of life.

The World Health Organization says breastfeeding can even be used for children “two years or beyond” in addition to age-appropriate foods, further curbing household food costs.

Begin also points out that breastfeeding can help curb long-term health costs for families by making both infants and mothers less susceptible to illnesses, cancers and other health impacts. But, she adds, even though the financial cost is alleviated for a family, breastfeeding still costs time for women. This, she says, is why it’s essential that women are supported when breastfeeding by their spouse, employer and community.

3. Hunger

Infant and childhood hunger is a global issue, especially in developing and remote regions that lack adequate food security. According to the World Food Programme, poor nutrition causes 45 percent of deaths in children under five an estimated 3.1 million children each year.

Begin says breastfeeding can help curb the impact of food insecurity for infants under six months, as it can be the sole nutritional and food source for babies. Additionally, the ability of mothers to supplement age-appropriate foods with breastfeeding into a child’s first few years of life enables more food and nutritional security for their young children.

She points out, however, that it is still crucial for mothers to get adequate nutrition in order to pass breastfeeding’s nutritional benefits on to their babies. So, while breastfeeding may help curb some of the issue of food security, it certainly isn’t a catch-all for its potential impacts.

4. Lack of clean water

While a breastfeeding mother needs to stay hydrated to care for her own health, her infant doesn’t have the same reliance on pure drinking water. According to the World Health Organization, breast milk is 80 percent water, which means even in the hottest of climates an infant does not need additional water to stay healthy and hydrated.

Begin says breastfeeding also helps support an infant’s developing immune system, which can help protect them from some bacteria that can contaminate the water they drink as they age. But breastfeeding doesn’t eliminate water inequality for a mother and her family.

“In a way, you take care of issues of water contamination because you don’t have to give water to the infant,” Begin says. “But mothers still need access to water and sanitation to sustain breastfeeding.”

5. Gender inequality

Around the globe, women often lack access to proper information about breastfeeding, preventing them from making informed decisions on whether or not feeding is for them. They’re also routinely shamed for breastfeeding in public, especially in Western nations.

Overall, gender inequality is ingrained in how we view breastfeeding. But the practice, Begin says, can also help tackle gender inequality by empowering women.

The act of breastfeeding, she says, helps empower women by enabling them to provide all the nutrition their babies needs with their own bodies.

But, she adds, women also must be empowered to choose how they feed their children and that includes whether or not to breastfeed at all. And to support a woman’s right to her body, a cornerstone of gender equality, we should support that decision, too.

6. Pollution

The process of breastfeeding depends almost entirely on a woman’s body, with few if any additional resources needed to sustain the practice. That’s good news for the environment, which undoubtedly feels the impacts of the formula industry.

“Breastfeeding has a very low carbon print,” Begin says. “All the water used to produce formula, the energy, the bottles, the tin cans you don’t need that. There’s something to be said about the cost of the [formula] industry on the environment.”

Advocates call breastfeeding “the most ecologically sound food available to humans,” as it is produced and consumed without any adverse impacts on the environment. That’s especially important in a global community already in crisis from the impacts of climate change.

The waste that comes from formula consumption is often non-recyclable, meaning it ends up in landfills or incinerated, both of which spell trouble for our environment.

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