Breastfeeding can save over 1 million lives yearly, UNICEF reports

A young mother breast feeds her baby

30 July 2004 – If more infants worldwide are given only mother’s milk and no food or formula until the age of six months, at least 1.3 million lives could be saved this year, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said today.

With more than 10 million children dying annually from mainly preventable causes like diarrhoea and pneumonia, the agency said if every baby were exclusively breastfed for the first half-year of life, an estimated 3,500 lives could be saved each day.

UNICEF cited these statistics in calling for greater global commitment to support breastfeeding. “If a child dies a preventable death it’s because mothers and infants are not getting the basic support they need,” said UNICEF chief Carol Bellamy.

Calling breastfeeding “the most natural act of mother and newborn,” she said the practice has not been properly supported considering that it holds the key for children to develop well in good health.

Ms. Bellamy said every mother who chooses to exclusively breastfeed for six months has the right to services and support from their governments, communities and families.

Breastmilk contains all the nutrients, antibodies, hormones, immune factors and antioxidants that an infant needs to thrive during the first six months of life. It also protects babies from diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections while stimulating their immune systems.

In the first two months of life, an infant who is not exclusively breastfed is up to 25 times more likely to die from diarrhoea and four times more likely to die from pneumonia than a non-breastfed baby, UNICEF said. Growth and development may stall and the child stands a greater risk of obesity, heart disease and gastro-intestinal problems in later years.

Despite this evidence, only 39 per cent of babies worldwide are being breastfed exclusively in the first six months, the agency said. UNICEF helps governments to support breastfeeding, including through legislation to protect against formula companies that promote their products in such a way as to deter women from breastfeeding.

Tomorrow marks the start of World Breastfeeding Week, with UNICEF predicting the participation of more than 120 countries in awareness-raising and other related activities.

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