The Real Miracle Food

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Zambia Joseph Molieri/Bread for the World

By Jordan Teague, Bread for the World Institute

It’s not surprising that ending hunger is focused on results: Did this effort improve life for hungry people, and if so, how fast can we scale it up? Low-cost, high-impact, and evidence-based are the watchwords. 

What if you found out about something that meets all those criteria? It’s universally available and very low-cost. It could save the lives of at least 820,000 children a year and add hundreds of billions of dollars to the global economy. Wouldn’t you agree that the inventor of this strategy deserves the Nobel Prize for Medicine and the Nobel Prize for Economics? And maybe even the Nobel Peace Prize?

The truth is that this intervention already exists: breastfeeding. The Lancet, a respected British medical journal, recently launched a new series focused on the health and economic benefits of breastfeeding. The series highlights the significant role of breastfeeding in improving nutrition, education, and maternal and child health and survival in both high-income and low-income countries. The authors also take a look at what it will take to improve breastfeeding practices around the world.

Obviously breastfeeding itself is not new, but only in recent years has conclusive evidence of many of its benefits become available. Its impact is frankly astounding. First, and most obviously, it raises a child’s chances of celebrating a fifth birthday. The authors of the Lancet series found that improved breastfeeding practices could save more than 820,000 lives a year – many of them the lives of infants. Breastfeeding is critical in low- and middle-income countries where illnesses such as pneumonia and diarrhea are common and often fatal. Increased rates of breastfeeding could prevent one-third of all respiratory infections and nearly half of all diarrhea episodes. Second, the Lancet series notes the growing evidence that breastfeeding reduces a person’s risk of obesity and diabetes later in life.

Less vulnerability to health problems as adults is not the only extended benefit of breastfeeding. The evidence shows that breastfeeding contributes to the cognitive development of children and adolescents – and thus to better academic performance, more years of schooling completed, and ultimately increased earnings and productivity. Less than optimal breastfeeding practices cause an estimated loss of $300 billion a year, because of the impact on children’s ability to learn and later make a living.

There is lots of room for improvement in global breastfeeding. We know that the best practice is exclusive breastfeeding (no other food or water) until a baby is 6 months old. But only 37 percent of all infants who are currently younger than 6 months are exclusively breastfed. The world has agreed to a global target of increasing this rate to at least 50 percent by 2025. And rapid progress is possible through a combination of actions, policies, and programs to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding. These include:

  • sharing accurate information with parents and communities
  • fostering positive social attitudes toward breastfeeding
  • building the political will to support breastfeeding with legislation and policies
  • regulating the breastmilk substitute industry
  • scaling up and monitoring interventions that explore how to improve breastfeeding practices
  • adopting policies that encourage breastfeeding-friendly workplaces and health centers

Since breastfeeding is a key factor in improving the nutrition, health, and well-being of mothers and children around the world, Bread for the World Institute and our partners have been strongly advocating for a breastfeeding indicator in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While a global target of 50 percent has been established by the World Health Assembly, the Sustainable Development Goals do not include a target for exclusive breastfeeding. Including exclusive breastfeeding in the SDGs would be a powerful statement of the world’s recognition that action must be taken to increase breastfeeding rates, and it will hold governments accountable for this critical component of their commitment to ending all forms of malnutrition by 2030.

Jordan Teague is the international policy analyst for food security and nutrition at Bread for the World Institute.

Photo: Taken in Zambia by Joseph Molieri/Bread for the World

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