World Breastfeeding Week
In observation of World Breastfeeding Week this week, countries around the world are celebrating the vital role of breastfeeding for human development.
The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of life, and then continuing breastfeeding along with age-appropriate foods until two years of life and beyond. Despite the many health benefits of breastfeeding for women and children, around the world, only 44% of infants are breastfed exclusively for six months. Economic, social and health systems do not adequately support breastfeeding — resulting in high health, environmental and economic costs.
The pandemic is exacerbating breastfeeding challenges.
As concerns about the burgeoning nutrition emergency grow, a recent Call to Action in The Lancet by the heads of the 4 UN nutrition agencies highlights five urgent actions to protect children’s right to nutrition in the COVID-19 pandemic including the protection, promotion and support of breastfeeding. At the same time, we are seeing confusion about COVID-19 transmission and breastfeeding, with different advice given in different countries. There is no evidence of COVID-19 transmission via breastfeeding and the WHO maintains that the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the risks of transmitting that virus. It is thus imperative to redouble efforts to strengthen policies, communities, and health systems to support breastfeeding.
What does supporting breastfeeding mean in practical terms?
It means advocating for appropriate policies that provide paid parental leave so parents can establish a breastfeeding relationship and access the care and professional support they need without the added stress of returning to paid employment before they and the infant are physically ready to separate. It also means advocating for policies that restrict the marketing of breastmilk substitutes.
Secondly, advocating for evidence-based birth practices that support breastfeeding, including no enforced separation of mother and infant after birth, and skilled staff to help mothers and infants with immediate and exclusive breastfeeding.
Thirdly, ensuring support at home and in communities by recognizing women’s rights to breastfeed anywhere, and by providing breastfeeding mothers with access skilled support.
Finally, it means obtaining and sharing accurate information about breastfeeding. Women with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 can breastfeed, taking precautions such as wearing a mask when feeding and caring for the infant and washing their hands before touching the infant. Accurate information is available from UNICEF and WHO, but more is needed at the community level. To address this need, R4D contributed to the development of community counselling cards — available in four languages — to support breastfeeding during the pandemic, through USAID Advancing Nutrition, the agency’s flagship multisectoral nutrition project.
We know what it takes to support breastfeeding today and every day, with or without a pandemic. We are called, in this moment, to recognize what’s at stake by ignoring the global nutrition crisis and to act boldly and immediately. Will we answer that call to support breastfeeding by advocating for supportive policies and evidence-based birth practices, by ensuring access to skilled support, and by providing accurate information? The health of our species and of our planet depends on it.