This week (August 1-7) is World Breastfeeding Week, an occasion to remind ourselves of the important role that optimal infant and young child feeding plays in the healthy growth and development of individuals, communities, and nations. For more than 30 years, the World Bank has championed the importance of breastfeeding. This includes investing in advocacy and communications to policymakers, strengthened health systems, and effective community-based outreach to provide the knowledge and support needed by women and their families.
To mark World Breastfeeding Week, World Bank nutrition experts have updated this helpful Q/A on the topic:
What are the health benefits of breastfeeding?
Breastfeeding is one of the most powerful tools available to a mother to ensure the health and survival of her child from the moment he/she is born. Optimal breastfeeding practices, which include initiating breastfeeding within an hour of birth, feeding only breast milk until 6 months, and continuing to breastfeed up to 24 months, are key elements in the fight against malnutrition. Breast milk provides all the nutrients a child needs for healthy development in the first six months of life. And the antibodies that are transferred from a mother to her child during breastfeeding help protect infants against common childhood illnesses that can lead to death, such as diarrhea and pneumonia.
The Lancet’s 2008 series on Maternal and Child Undernutrition  has estimated that the relative risk of death (all cause mortality) is 14 times higher for a child who is not breastfed versus one who is exclusively breastfed. When broken down by disease, the relative risk of death from diarrhea and pneumonia is 10.5 and 15 times higher, respectively, for children who are not breastfed versus those that are exclusively breastfed.
What are the economic benefits of breastfeeding?
A number of studies have looked at the costs and savings that exclusive breastfeeding would yield. A 2001 U.S. Department of Agriculture study estimated that in the United States, at least US$3.6 billion would be saved annually if breastfeeding rates were increased from current levels to 75% (at time of hospital discharge) and 50% (at 6 months postpartum). These savings come from a combination of the costs of preventable premature deaths, reduced direct costs on medical expenditures, and savings on indirect costs such as time and forgone earnings of parents caring for sick infants. A 2010 study estimated that the full-scale implementation of optimal breastfeeding promotion and support in the 68 countries with a high-burden of stunting would cost between US$5-15 per participant per year when integrated into a community nutrition program. This same study also estimates that the cost savings of behavior change programs (which include breastfeeding promotion) as a whole range from US$53-153 per disability- adjusted life-year saved.
How much progress have we made on breastfeeding?
Globally, breastfeeding statistics are rather stark, and improvement overall has been slow. Although breastfeeding patterns have improved over the last two decades, they are still far below the recommended levels in the developing world as a whole. In 1996, UNICEF estimated  that 32% of infants were exclusively breastfed, a number that increased only to 36% in 2006, and is now slightly lower at 34% in 2012. In addition, although breastfeeding is a widespread practice overall – above 95% in many African countries – exclusive breastfeeding is often derailed by the introduction of foods and liquids too early. And in many countries, there is a long way to go to achieve high coverage of infants with early initiation of breastfeeding.
What are some key actions to promote optimal breastfeeding?
- Support for mothers – especially first-time mothers – is critical, both at home within the family and through effective heath service delivery, to help them learn how to successfully breastfeed.
- Promotion of a work and economic environment that allows mothers to exclusively breastfeed their children until six months of age and then continue to breastfeed through two years.
- Promotion of optimal breastfeeding practices at all levels of the health system, starting from the community level and reaching all the way up to the national level.
- Implementation of national policies that protect and promote optimal breastfeeding practices. There are important lessons to be learned from countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam, which have recently championed the cause of optimal infant feeding by legislating paid maternity leave for six months.
World Breastfeeding Week reminds us of the important work that has already made a difference in the lives of countless infants and their families, and urges us to work harder with countries and development partners to make it possible for even more children to benefit from mothers’ milk.