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Breastfeeding: Fit for a King... and Millions of Others

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Last month's arrival of the Royal Heir was well-timed, a perfect opportunity for the Duchess of Cambridge -- whose every move is analyzed, scrutinized and, to the extent possible, emulated -- to set an important example to new mothers around the world. As chance would have it, August is International Breast feeding month.

Speculation was rife within the British media about new mom Kate's intentions on the subject. One British television reporter raised some eyebrows in an op-ed piece in London's Telegraph, encouraging the princess in perhaps less-than-delicate terms: "What we really need is the Duchess of Cambridge to get her Royal orbs out to feed our future monarch. And to be applauded -- not seethed at -- for doing so."

Her commentary is on point, especially within a broader, global context. After all, women all over the world often look to Western cultures to understand our practices and see our latest trends. Women in developing countries seek to embrace what they deem as "modern" or progressive. And so when breastfeeding is in decline, as it has been in Britain, and before a resurgence, in the United States as well, it sends a message at odds with what new mothers within the developing world should be hearing, and that is this: beyond any other preventive measures, breastfeeding infants under 2-years-old has the greatest impact on a child's health and survival.

What we know about the far-reaching benefits of breastfeeding is overwhelming. In developing countries, it has the potential to prevent 1.4 million deaths in children under five, improving child survival rates by six times. In particular, breast feeding can reduce the incidence of respiratory infection and diarrhea, two major causes of death among infants. And breast milk, especially the colostrum produced in the days around delivery, is particularly nutritious for babies and the source of all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals an infant needs for growth.

Given these benefits, the World Health Organization and UNICEF recommends that all babies be breastfed within the first hour after birth, and that breastfeeding continue exclusively -- in other words, without supplemental feeding -- for six months, with additional breastfeeding for two more years.

And yet, despite all the advantages inherent in breastfeeding, only about two in five children under 6-months-old in the developing world are breastfed. In some countries, mothers are not convinced that breastfeeding alone provides the nutrition their babies need. But by this "mixed feeding," which can include water and other liquids and foods, the risk to the infant's health increases. It also is likely to cause the supply of breast milk to decrease.

There are other hurdles as well. In some cultures, feeding a child with colostrum is considered taboo, and tragically, this nutrient-rich milk is often discarded. What's more, work obligations for many women prevent them from adhering to an exclusive breastfeeding regimen. And then there are those who simply find successful breastfeeding extremely challenging, and without resources like those available more readily in the West (La Leche League, for example), mothers may give up trying to overcome some early difficulties.

The consequences for the 60 percent of children who are not breastfed go beyond the near-term health of the child. More than 200 million children are not reaching their developmental potential by age 5. That is due in part to their lack of nutrition, which starts with the prenatal nutrition their mothers require. At ChildFund International, we are addressing these inter-connected priorities -- prenatal nutrition and breastfeeding education -- through our Healthy Beginnings program. We understand that it is critically important for children to get what they need in the earliest part of their lives. When they do not, these deficiencies prevent them from ever reaching the full measure of their potential.

Breastfeeding is an important part of a healthy beginning, not only physiologically but emotionally as well. It helps create special mother-baby bonds, bonds that lead down the road to better behavior, advanced speech and higher levels of socialization with others.

Whatever the Duchess decides to do on the subject of breastfeeding, Britain's future king will no doubt have a healthy beginning of his own. But Kate's example can potentially have a widespread impact on the health of children she will never meet. Ironically, the most modern step she can take is also the oldest.