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Exclusive breastfeeding means that an infant receives only breastmilk with no additional foods or liquids, not even water. The benefits of exclusive breastfeeding on child survival, growth, and development are well documented. Exclusive breastfeeding also provides health benefits for mothers.
Impact on neonatal and infant survival and health
- Saves lives. Exclusive breastfeeding is the single most effective intervention for preventing child deaths, yet less than 40 percent of infants under 6 months old receive the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding. Diarrhea and pneumonia are the leading causes of death among infants in developing countries. Infants under 2 months old who are not breastfed are six times more likely to die from diarrhea or acute respiratory infections than those who are breastfed. Approximately 1.3 million deaths could be prevented each year if exclusive breastfeeding rates increased to 90 percent. Read more on the impact of early and exclusive breastfeeding on neonatal mortality.
- Protects against illness. Breastmilk, especially the first yellow thick milk called colostrum, contains anti-bacterial and anti-viral agents and high levels of vitamin A that protect infants against disease.
- Promotes recovery of the sick child. Breastfeeding provides a nutritious, easily digestible food when a sick child loses his or her appetite for other foods. Continued breastfeeding during diarrhea reduces dehydration, the severity and duration of diarrhea, and the risk of malnutrition.
Impact on child nutrition
- Provides total food security. Breastmilk is a hygienic source of food with the right amount of energy, protein, fat, vitamins, and other nutrients for infants in the first six months. It cannot be duplicated. Breastmilk is the only safe and reliable source of food for infants in an emergency.
- Meets all water requirements. Breastmilk is 88 percent water. Studies show that healthy, exclusively breastfed infants under 6 months old do not need additional fluids, even in countries with extremely high temperatures and low humidity. Offering water before 6 months of age reduces breastmilk intake, interferes with full absorption of breastmilk nutrients, and increases the risk of illness from contaminated water and feeding bottles.
Impact on child development
- Optimizes a child's physical and mental growth and development. Infants fed breastmilk show higher developmental scores as toddlers and higher IQs as children than those who are not fed breastmilk. Breastmilk supplies key nutrients that are critical for health, growth, and development
Benefits for women
- Benefits maternal health. Breastfeeding reduces the mother's risk of fatal postpartum hemorrhage and premenopausal breast and ovarian cancer. Frequent and exclusive breastfeeding contributes to a delay in the return of fertility and helps protect women against anemia by conserving iron.
- Bonds mother and child. Breastfeeding provides frequent interaction between mother and infant, fostering emotional bonds, a sense of security, and stimulus to the baby’s developing brain.
Economic and environmental benefits
- Saves money. Families save money that would have been spent to treat illnesses due to contaminated and inadequate breastmilk substitutes. Exclusive breastfeeding eliminates dependence on costly breastmilk substitutes, feeding equipment, and fuel for preparation.
- Protects the environment. Breastmilk is a naturally renewable, sustainable resource that requires no fuel for preparation, packaging, shipping, or disposal.
Promoting and supporting exclusive breastfeeding
Despite its many benefits, many women do not breastfeed exclusively. Obstacles to exclusive breastfeeding can be overcome in the following ways:
- Prevent and treat early problems. Most breastfeeding problems occur in the first 2 weeks of life. These problems include cracked nipples, engorgement, and mastitis and all too often lead to very early infant supplementation and abandonment of exclusive breastfeeding. Proper positioning and attachment of the baby to the breast and frequent breastfeedings can prevent these problems. Support to the mother for early initiation is easy to provide via peer support networks and has been effective at prolonging exclusive breastfeeding.
- Restrict commercial pressures. Aggressive marketing of infant formula often gives new mothers and families the impression that human milk is less modern and thus less healthy for infants than infant formula. Enforced restrictions on marketing of infant formula are part of efforts to support and prolong exclusive breastfeeding.
- Provide timely and accurate information. Many women and family members are unaware of the benefits of colostrum and exclusive breastfeeding. Women must sort through myths, misinformation, and mixed messages about breastfeeding. Ensuring that women receive complete, accurate, timely, and consistent information is fundamental for any program promoting exclusive breastfeeding.
- Address social barriers. Attitudes that undervalue breastfeeding discourage women from breastfeeding. These attitudes may be communicated in the media and reflected in the advice of relatives and friends. Successful efforts to promote good feeding practices focus not only on the mother but on those who influence her feeding decisions, such as her doctor, mother-in-law, and husband.
- Create supportive work environments. Few mothers are provided with paid maternity leave or time and a private place to breastfeed or express their breastmilk. Legislation around maternity leave and policies that provide time, space, and support for breastfeeding in the workplace could reduce one of the barriers to exclusive breastfeeding.
- Establish good practices in health facilities. Distribution of free samples of infant formula, the use of glucose water, and separation of mother from newborn are obstacles to the establishment of good feeding in health services. Adopting the Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative’s "Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding" and enhancing the skills of health care providers to support exclusive breastfeeding would help to ensure the best start for infants.