This month sees the start of World Breastfeeding Week (WBW), which runs from the 1st – 7th August each year. It is the annual campaign coordinated by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) that aims to “inform, anchor, engage and galvanise action on breastfeeding and related issues.” The week was started in 1992 to generate public awareness and support for breastfeeding, and since 2016, the WBW campaign has been aligned to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals which aim to “end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for everyone by 2030.
Humans have been breastfeeding their babies for thousands of years and is a natural and instinctive behaviour for both mother and child. We would not have survived as a species had we not been able to provide our youngest infants with nutrition in their early months from breastfeeding. So why is there a need to promote breastfeeding, you may ask?
The WHO have recognised that breastfeeding is essential for children to achieve optimal growth, development and health and they recommend that children start breastfeeding within the first hour of life and breastfeed exclusively for the first 6 months. Thereafter, the WHO recommend they “receive adequate and safe complementary foods while breastfeeding continues up to the age of 2 years or beyond”.
Whilst many in the UK do not breastfeed as long as that, breastfeeding is described by the UK Government as “an important public health priority” and they go on to say that:
…“increasing the number of babies who are breastfed offers the best possible start in life. Breastfeeding improves infant and maternal health and well-being in both the short and longer term.”
Research about breastfeeding
In many low- and middle-income countries, breastfeeding is more prevalent than in high-income countries and is inversely associated with the national gross domestic product (GDP), so the higher the country’s income, the lower the rates of breastfeeding, and the lower a country’s income, the higher the rates of breastfeeding. Lower income families also tend to breastfeed for longer.
This could be due to a number of factors including:
- Socioeconomic status
- Whether mothers work
- The provision of breastfeeding-friendly facilities
- Access to other sources of baby nutrition
- Attitudes in the general society
The benefits of breastfeeding
The benefits for children’s development of being breastfed have long been established and include:
- Protection against infection
- Promotion of emotional attachment
- Benefits against the risk of respiratory infections, gastroenteritis and ear infection
- Improved oral health and protection against malocclusion (where teeth are not aligned properly)
- Increased intelligence quotient points in childhood, adolescence and adulthood
- Likely to reduce the risk of being overweight and developing diabetes
- Reduced risk of sudden unexpected deaths in infancy in breastfed babies
Benefits for breastfeeding mothers include:
- Reduced risk of ovarian cancer
- Reduced risk of breast cancer
- Promotes births being spaced out
In contrast, where breastfeeding is suboptimal, not breastfeeding is estimated to cause almost 600,000 child deaths annually from pneumonia and diarrhoea alone, and the death of nearly 100,000 women from ovarian cancer and breast cancer, as well as type 2 diabetes.
In May 2021, the Government published guidance for England called “Early years high impact area 3: Supporting breastfeeding” which sets out ways in which early years settings can help promote breastfeeding to their families. It says that “exclusive breastfeeding should be recommended for the first 6 months of life with continued breastfeeding alongside solid foods for at least the first year of life.”
In Northern Ireland, recommendations are similar, and in Scotland and Wales, the recommendations follow WHO guidelines suggesting breastfeeding up to 2 years or as long as the mother chooses, along with other solid foods.
How to get involved in your setting
World Breastfeeding Week is a global event and has been celebrated annually in about 120 countries since 1991. You can find out more by visiting the WABA website at www.worldbreastfeedingweek.org.
This year, #WBW2022 is focusing on developing and strengthening the capacity of relevant organisations and people to protect, promote and support breastfeeding across different levels of society. As early years providers, settings have a unique access to help educate mothers and families.
Here are a few suggestions for getting involved:
- Connect to others in your community through the Warm Chain campaign (see below)
- Run an awareness campaign for families in your setting by providing information or access to local groups
- Educate the children on the importance of good nutrition and the naturalness of breastfeeding. This is important if children in your setting have new-born siblings and may need to understand more about the need for newborns to be breastfed. There are lots of videos you can use to introduce the idea of breastfeeding to younger children, which use animals to introduce the topic. UNICEF have created a simple, language-free video here
- Invite a local nurse of health visitor into your setting to run a session either for children or new mothers
- Join in with the political campaign to support breastfeeding mothers in the workplace and campaign for more action and support from companies and public health facilities. Find out more on the WABA website
Warm Chain campaign
This campaign has at its core, the mother-baby dyad, and is about linking people across different communities to help support this relationship in at least the first 1000 days of the child’s life. It helps identify different ways that this can be achieved, and you can get involved by completing a short, 5-minute survey at: I want to be part of the #WarmChain. All responses will be kept confidential and will be used to connect you with appropriate stakeholders in your country or community.
A word of caution
Remember that breastfeeding is not possible for everyone, and whilst it is important to promote the importance of good nutrition and breastfeeding, it is also important that settings are non-judgemental here. Some children have difficulty breastfeeding and there may be medical or mental health reasons why mothers are unable or unwilling to breastfeed and it is important not to stigmatise or attach blame to those parents who cannot breastfeed, for whatever reason. It is better to stress that everyone is different and offer support without judgement or blame.
More information and resources