Greater investment in family-friendly policies critical to support breastfeeding – UNICEF

UNICEF/Marco Dormino A woman breast feeds her premature baby at the UNICEF supported Maternity ward of the State University Hospital in Port au Prince, Haiti.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


While the benefits of breastfeeding for both children and mothers are extensive, policies that support nursing, particularly in workplaces, are not yet available to most mothers worldwide, the Head of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Wednesday.

“The health, social and economic benefits of breastfeeding – for mother and child – are well-established and accepted throughout the world”, according to UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “Yet, nearly 60 per cent of the world’s infants are missing out on the recommended six months of exclusive breastfeeding”.

From supporting healthy brain development in babies and young children, protecting infants against infection, decreasing the risk of obesity and disease, reducing healthcare costs and protecting nursing mothers against ovarian cancer and breast cancer, the benefits are widespread.

“We need far greater investment in paid parental leave and breastfeeding support across all workplaces to increase breastfeeding rates globally”, Ms. Fore underscored.

Kicking off World Breastfeeding Week

From 1 to 7 August each year, World Breastfeeding Week highlights the critical importance of nursing for children across the globe.

This year, the commemoration is accompanied by a fact sheet with new data from the 2019 Global Breastfeeding Scorecard, which revealed, among other things, that only four out of 10 babies in 2018 were exclusively breastfed.

Babies in rural areas were breastfed more than for their urban counterparts and at 23.9 per cent, upper-middle-income countries had the lowest breastfeeding rates.

Breastfeeding at work

UNICEF recommends regular lactation breaks during working hours to accommodate breastfeeding or expressing breastmilk, along with a supportive environment, which includes facilities that enable mothers to continue breastfeeding for six months, followed by age-appropriate complementary breastfeeding.

However, working women lack adequate support.

Worldwide, only 40 per cent of women with newborns have basic maternity benefits at their workplace. And in some African countries, only 15 per cent of mothers with newborns have any benefits at all to support continued breastfeeding.

Paid parental leave

While standards in the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Maternity Protection Convention 2000 include at least 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, it recommends at least 18 weeks, as well as workplace support for breastfeeding families. And yet, only 12 per cent of countries worldwide provide sufficient paid maternity leave.

UNICEF’s latest brief on family-friendly policy calls for at least six months of paid leave for all parents combined, of which 18 weeks should be reserved for mothers. Governments and businesses should strive for at least nine months of combined paid leave.

Longer maternity leave means higher chances of breastfeeding.

A recent study found that women with six months or more maternity leave were at least 30 per cent more likely to maintain any breastfeeding for at least the first six months. Increasing breastfeeding could prevent 823,000 annual deaths in children under five and 20,000 annual deaths from breast cancer.

However, in 2018, only 43 per cent of babies worldwide were breastfed within the first hour of life.

Immediate skin-to-skin contact and early breastfeeding keeps a baby warm, builds his or her immune system, promotes bonding, boosts a mother’s milk supply and increases the chances for continued exclusive breastfeeding, the UN Children’s Fund said.

And the benefits do not end there. Breastmilk is more than just food for babies, it is also a potent medicine for disease prevention that is tailored to the needs of each child – with the ‘first milk’, called colostrum, so rich in antibodies that it protects babies from disease and death.

Moreover, optimal breastfeeding would reduce global healthcare costs by an estimated $300 billion.

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