Women have the power to save the lives of over 820,000 young children each year and to help millions more thrive and reach their full intellectual potential. They are physically equipped to remove billions of dollars from global health care costs and turn it into billions in economic prosperity. This is because women possess the ability to make milk that is the most nutritionally and immunologically potent food for infants and toddlers. Food that can fuel brain development like nothing else. Food that can protect against disease and illness and save as many lives as some of the world’s best vaccines. Food that can set a child upon a path toward better health and a more prosperous future.
Yet while women have the ability to improve the health and vitality of their children, their communities, and the world at large, they face innumerable barriers in doing so.
A new scorecard published by the World Health Organization (WHO) this week shows just how big these barriers are. It shows that no country in the world is adequately supporting women to breastfeed in line with the global recommendations.
This worldwide failure to support women to breastfeed successfully is having serious consequences. A new report by UNICEF, WHO, 1,000 Days and Alive & Thrive, “Nurturing the Health and Wealth of Nations: The Investment Case for Breastfeeding,” indicates that countries are losing billions of dollars each year because they fail to invest in programs and policies that help women breastfeed. For example, in China, a country where only 1 in 5 babies are breastfed in accordance with global recommendations, it is estimated that its economy loses $66 billion per year due to low breastfeeding rates. These staggering economic losses are driven by costs associated with lower cognitive capacity of Chinese children that are not optimally breastfed.
This is because breastfeeding has been shown to play a critical role in fostering a young child’s brain development. Numerous studies have shown that shorter durations of breastfeeding for children were associated with at least a 2.6-point loss in IQ scores. Moreover, using cutting-edge neuroimaging techniques to measure babies’ brain development, researchers in the U.S. found that babies who had been breastfed exclusively for at least three months had enhanced development in key parts of the brain by age 2 compared to children who were exclusively formula-fed or who were fed a combination of formula and breastmilk. The research showed that the extra growth was most significant in parts of the brain associated with language, emotional function and cognition.
But in addition to the cognitive losses in children, poor breastfeeding rates cost countries in two other critical ways: first, in terms of higher health care costs to treat diseases that could have been prevented with better breastfeeding and second, the potential future income that is lost to maternal and child deaths due to low rates of breastfeeding. For example, in the U.S., researchers have estimated that over $17 billion could be saved each year in medical costs and in the costs associated with women and children dying prematurely if 90 percent of babies were breastfed exclusively for the first six months of life.
Clearing the path for breastfeeding success
The stunning loss of human potential and the enormous sums of money lost each year caused by the collective failure to support women to breastfeed is not inevitable. In fact, we know that rapid progress in increasing the number of children breastfed—and by extension saving lives, improving health and building prosperity—is possible with investment in the right policies and programs.
We have a global target in place to take the proportion of babies exclusively breastfed from 40 percent to 50 percent over the next eight years. Getting to that target will take an investment of $5.7 billion by 2025. This investment translates into roughly $4.70 per newborn and would finance improved access to skilled breastfeeding counseling, better practices in maternity facilities, national breastfeeding education efforts, the development of paid family leave policies, and the implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes to restrict the unethical promotion of infant and toddler formula. The payoffs for the investment in these programs and policies are massive.
For about $5 per baby, we could save 520,000 lives by simply ensuring that half of the world’s children are breastfed for the first six months of life and add almost $300 billion to the economies of low and middle-income countries.
The ROI for breastfeeding is unbeatable. As the Investment Case for Breastfeeding report highlights, every $1 invested breastfeeding programs yields $35 in economic benefits.
It is clearly in a country’s economic self-interest to invest in breaking down the barriers to enable women to breastfeed and every child to get the strongest start to life. Nonetheless, it will take a collective effort to clear the path to better enable women to breastfeed and unlock massive gains in health, cognitive potential and economic productivity. It is why I am excited that my organization, 1,000 Days, is part of the new Global Breastfeeding Collective, a partnership of 20 prominent international agencies and organizations led by UNICEF and WHO that are committed to increasing investment policies and actions to help women to successfully breastfeed.
Together we can help unleash a woman’s power to breastfeed and her power to transform the world.
Lucy Martinez Sullivan is the Executive Director of 1,000 Days, the leading advocacy organization working in the U.S. and around the world to improve nutrition and ensure women and children have the healthiest first 1,000 days. Learn more at www.thousanddays.org and follow Lucy on Twitter @lucymsullivan.