Breastfeeding Could Save 800,000 Babies’ And Mothers’ Lives Per Year, According To A New Study

Universal breastfeeding could save up to 800,000 lives per year of both breastfed children and the mothers who adopt the practice, according to a new study published this week in British medical journal The Lancet.

As the Telegraph reports, scientists at the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil researched the data from 28 other reviews of prior breastfeeding studies to reach their conclusions.

In order for the world to see the dramatic benefits of breastfeeding, both now and for future generations, almost every mother in the world would have to breastfeed their children.

In high-income countries, such as in North America or western Europe, breastfeeding can reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) by one-third, according to WTSP (Tampa). In middle- and low-income countries, breastfeeding can reduce deaths from diarrhea by half and deaths from respiratory infections by a third. Further, says the report, breast-fed children in those countries are likely to be more intelligent and will grow up to face fewer problems such as obesity and diabetes.

Breastfeeding would also prevent deaths among mothers from certain types of illnesses. For example, universal breastfeeding could prevent up to 20,000 deaths annually among women from breast cancer, as well as reduce deaths from certain types of ovarian cancer. Breastfeeding may also prevent type 2 diabetes in mothers.

For lead researcher Cesar Victora, the study’s conclusion “leaves no doubt that the decision not to breastfeed has major long-term negative effects on the health, nutrition and development of children and on women’s health.”

Currently, the percentages of children who a breast fed vary significantly between high-income countries and middle- to low-income countries, and vary wildly from country-to-country irrespective of income. For example, in the U.S., 27 percent of children are breast fed until the ages of 12 months; in New Zealand, it’s 44 percent; in India it’s 92 percent. And in the U.K., it’s just 0.5 percent.

Still, breastfeeding is not without its challenges, and not all mothers are able to do it, as Dr. Jennifer Wu, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, is quick to point out.

“I feel like the tone of the article is sort of an indictment. We want to encourage breastfeeding but I’ve also seen patients in tears who can’t do it. This article makes it seem like developed countries, rich women, they should all be breastfeeding. But for working women, it’s harder for them to breastfeed.”

Dr. Nigel Rollins of the World Health Organization (WHO) is sympathetic to the plight of women who may not be able to breastfeed, whether due to having a busy work schedule, cultural considerations, or other factors.

“The success or failure of breastfeeding should not be seen solely as the responsibility of the woman. Her ability to breastfeed is very much shaped by the support and the environment in which she lives. There is a broader responsibility of governments and society to support women through policies and programmes in the community.”

For Dr. Aaron Caughey, professor and chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Oregon Health & Science University, things are improving for mothers in the U.S. who want to breastfeed.

“Over the last decade, we’ve seen a change in how breastfeeding is valued, not just by women but leaders in medicine and workplaces.”

How do you believe governments, workplaces, and communities can support breastfeeding mothers? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

[Image via Shutterstock/Dmitry Lobanov]