On 28th January 2016 The Lancet Breastfeeding Studies were published. This research project is the most extensive ever undertaken into the effects of breastfeeding; evaluating global breastfeeding levels, trends and inequalities. It also looked at the short and long-term consequences for both mother and child.
Breastfeeding has an impact on all mothers and babies
The research (funded by the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust) makes it clear there is no doubt that breastfeeding has an impact on the health and well-being of everyone, regardless of where they live or their income.
Professor Cesar Victora from the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil said “There is a widespread misconception that breastmilk can be replaced with artificial products without detrimental consequences”.
The research found that increasing breastfeeding worldwide could prevent over 800,000 child deaths and 20,000 deaths from breast cancer every year. It says “Our systematic reviews emphasise how important breastfeeding is for all women and children, irrespective of where they live and of whether they are rich or poor. Appropriate breastfeeding practices prevent child morbidity due to diarrhoea, respiratory infections, and otitis media. Where infectious diseases are common causes of death, breastfeeding provides major protection, but even in high-income populations it lowers mortality from causes such as necrotising enterocolitis and sudden infant death syndrome. Available evidence shows that breastfeeding enhances human capital by increasing intelligence. It also helps nursing women by preventing breast cancer. Additionally, our review suggests likely effects on overweight and diabetes in breastfed children, and on ovarian cancer and diabetes in mothers.”
In writing this report The Lancet looked at a variety of recent papers on the significance of breastfeeding, consolidating the evidence which has been collected in recent years. It concluded that breastmilk makes the world healthier, smarter, and more equal.
One piece of research quoted was by Dr Bernardo Lessa Horta and colleagues from the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil who analysed data from a prospective study of nearly 6,000 infants born in Pelotas in 1982. The study showed increased adult intelligence, improved educational attainment and earning ability at all duration levels of breastfeeding, and the longer a child was breastfed for (up to 12 months), the greater the magnitude of the benefits.
Dr Horta said “The likely mechanism underlying the beneficial effects of breast milk on intelligence is the presence of long-chain saturated fatty acids (DHAs) found in breast milk, which are essential for brain development. Our finding that predominant breastfeeding is positively related to IQ in adulthood also suggests that the amount of milk consumed plays a role.”
A report on the study can be found here
Economic and environmental benefits
A UNICEF report in 2012 found that even moderate increases in breastfeeding rates could save the NHS millions. Looking at the economic effects of breastfeeding the research found that overall savings could be much greater. Keith Hansen of the World Bank is quoted as saying ” In sheer, raw, bottom line economic terms, breastfeeding may be the single best investment a country can make”.
Success in breastfeeding is not the sole responsibility of a woman
One of the most important points raised by the report is that “success in breastfeeding is not the sole responsibility of a woman — the promotion of breastfeeding is a collective societal responsibility.”
Professor Victor said “There is a widespread misconception that the benefits of breastfeeding only relate to poor countries. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our work for this series clearly shows that breastfeeding saves lives and money in all countries, rich and poor alike. Therefore, the importance of tackling the issue globally is greater than ever.”
Recognition that more support is needed
The decision on how to feed a baby is a very personal one and LLLGB recognises that some women choose not to breastfeed. However, while initiation rates for breastfeeding remain at around 80%, statistics show that eight out of ten women who start to breastfeed stop before they want to. The report emphasises the importance of looking at why this happens.
It states “The reasons why women avoid or stop breastfeeding range from the medical, cultural, and psychological, to physical discomfort and inconvenience. These matters are not trivial, and many mothers without support turn to a bottle of formula. Multiplied across populations and involving multinational commercial interests, this situation has catastrophic consequences on breastfeeding rates and the health of subsequent generations”
Action needed from Government and Health Authorities
In the UK we have the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world, and less than 1% of infants are still breastfed at 1 year. At the moment cuts are being made to breastfeeding support. The Lancet series emphasises the importance of committed support from governments and health authorities. It calls for the establishment of “a new normal” where every woman can expect to breastfeed if she wishes to, and the support is there when she needs it.
The development of a National Breastfeeding Strategy and enforcement of the WHO code on the marketing of breastmilk substitutes are two ways that support could be better. The public health budget for breastfeeding needs to be protected and NICE guidelines implemented. Working towards all maternity hospitals being Baby Friendly would be a positive step forward but this needs to be followed by adequate support.
It is really important to look at the barriers which are stopping women from either starting or continuing to breastfeed and to put into place the support needed to help with this.
La Leche League GB welcomes increased support
Women also need more support to continue breastfeeding if they return to paid employment.
Being aware of the significance of breastfeeding is important and having help and support available when difficulties arise will enable more women to breastfeed for as long as they wish to. LLLGB offers mother-to-mother support and information to enable women to overcome early challenges and enjoy breastfeeding.
Copyright LLLGB 2016