A new research study and online tool illustrates the dramatic costs – in human lives and to the global economy – due to inadequate breastfeeding: almost 700,000 lives annually and a billion dollars a day.
Listen to Dr. Dylan Walters, lead author of the Cost of Not Breastfeeding, in this interview with Voice of America:
The tool was developed by health economist Dr. Dylan Walters with support from Alive & Thrive, an international maternal and child nutrition initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“Each year not breastfeeding newborns and young children according to recommendations costs global society nearly 700,000 lives and US$341 billion dollars, or 0.7% Gross National Income, in health system costs and lost productivity due to premature mortality, and cognitive losses,” Dr. Walters said. “The world must act to mobilize financial resources necessary and political commitment to achieve the World Health Assembly Global Nutrition Target of exclusive breastfeeding prevalence of 50% by 2025 because it is a human right, it saves lives, and improves the prosperity of economies.”
The online tool, available on Alive & Thrive’s website, provides background on the impacts of not breastfeeding in 34 countries. The tool is based on Dr. Walters’ research published by Health Policy and Planning Journal on June 24 (https://doi.org/10.1093/heapol/czz050), which provides data on estimates for the human and economic costs of not breastfeeding for over 100 countries.
“We need to be sensitive to the constraints and hardships faced by mothers and families in a world that lacks basic support systems for their physical, psycho-social, and economic well-being,” Dr. Walters said. “Even more, mothers and families are up against a constant barrage of corporate marketing of alternatives and misinformation spread that undermines what should be boringly second nature and not stigmatized by society.”
Expanding paid family leave to the minimum 18 weeks as recommended by the International Labor Organization would enhance the ability for mothers to exclusively breastfeed. It would further benefit mothers to align this duration with the recommended 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding.
Launched just three weeks before World Breastfeeding Week (Aug. 1-7), the tool is a valuable resource for advocates, said Roger Mathisen, program director of Alive & Thrive’s office in Southeast Asia and a co-author of the paper.
“The data are sending us a compelling message: we must do more to support breastfeeding,” Mathisen said. “With this tool, we hope advocates around the world will be emboldened further in their efforts to obtain greater support from governments.”
Dr. Linh TH Phan, Regional Program Coordinator in Southeast Asia for Alive & Thrive, said the tool was valuable for efforts to increase support for breastfeeding worldwide.
“Low- and middle-income countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and their people, have the most to gain from adopting universal breastfeeding within the first hour of life, exclusively for the first 6 months, and continued for more than two years,” Dr. Phan said. “But wealthier countries also have room for cognitive gains and probably reductions in the burden of childhood obesity and maternal cancers and Type 2 diabetes.”
People can do many things to improve support for breastfeeding mothers. Demanding government adopt policies that promote breastfeeding, compelling employers to provide breastfeeding support at work sites, and ensuring health workers are adequately trained to support mothers to breastfeed are just a few positive actions that can help the world reach the goal of 50% exclusive breastfeeding prevalence by 2025. Additionally, governments should enforce the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes.
For seven actions implementers and donors from governments, philanthropies, international organizations and civil society can take to create a more enabling environment for breastfeeding, visit the Global Breastfeeding Collective: https://www.k4health.org/toolkits/breastfeeding-advocacy-toolkit/tools-collectives-7-policy-actions.