Maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health

World Breastfeeding Week

1-7 August 2011

Mother-to-mother support in breastfeeding in the Andean region.

Talking about why breastfeeding matters and exchanging information and experiences is one way of protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding. "Talk to me! Breastfeeding - a 3D experience" is the slogan of this year's World Breastfeeding Week. Health-care providers, mothers, families and other partners all have a role to play in the dialogue on breastfeeding and its benefits not only for health, but also for the environment, for women’s rights and for social advancement.

New information and communication technologies (ICTs) are increasingly used as a welcome tool to facilitate these conversations. In Nigeria for example, the "Alive & Thrive" initiative aims to improve breastfeeding practices by providing support to breastfeeding mothers via cell phones. In a controlled trial, text messages and voice messages are sent to breastfeeding women at least once every two weeks to provide breastfeeding information. This initiative demonstrates the potential of mobile devices and other ICTs in promoting and encouraging breastfeeding.

"If all babies and young children were breastfed exclusively for their first six months of life, the lives of about one million children under five could be saved each year." says Dr Elizabeth Mason, Director of the WHO Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health.

Breastfeeding is not only immediately beneficial for newborns; it also contributes to a lifetime of good health. Adults who were breastfed as infants are more likely to have lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels and less at risk of becoming overweight or obese. These adults also suffer less frequently from type-2 diabetes and are more successful in IQ tests and academic careers.

But too many mothers do not breastfeed their newborns or stop exclusive breastfeeding within a few weeks after childbirth. Less than 4 out of 10 infants under 6 months of age are exclusively breastfed. While breastfeeding is a natural act, it is also a learned behaviour. Mothers require active support for establishing and sustaining appropriate breastfeeding practices. WHO and partners are working together to improve breastfeeding rates benefiting nutrition and development of infants.

A new initiative that focuses attention on breastfeeding is the UN Secretary-General's Global Strategy for Women's and Children's Health aimed at saving 16 million women and children under five years of age in the 49 lowest-income countries by 2015. The Strategy was developed by a host of partners and has raised over 40 billion dollars in commitments. It is accompanied by a framework for accountability that includes the exclusive breastfeeding rate as one of 11 core indicators for tracking progress.

World Breastfeeding Week occurs every year in more than 120 countries from the 1st to the 7th August. Its main purpose is to promote breastfeeding and its benefits in order to improve the health of newborns around the world.

Key facts on breastfeeding and its contribution to achieve the health-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs

  • Breastfeeding is the best way to provide newborns with the nutrients they need. (MDG4)
  • Breast milk contains antibodies that help protect infants from childhood illnesses including gastrointestinal infections. (MDG4)
  • Breastfeeding encourages more rapid maternal weight loss after birth.
  • Breastfeeding provides a natural (though not fail safe) method of birth control by delaying the return of menstrual periods. (MDG5)
  • Breastfeeding reduces risks of breast and ovarian cancer later in life.
  • Breastfeeding contributes to reducing household costs particularly in poverty stricken economies. (MDG1)
  • Breastfeeding encourages women to be in control of their reproductive lives and allows them to be self-sufficient in nourishing their child. (MDG3)
  • Breastfeeding exclusively for six months after birth saves children's lives and contributes to reducing under-five mortality worldwide (MDG4).
  • Breastfeeding reduces mothers' risks of postpartum haemorrhage if initiated immediately after childbirth. (MDG5)
  • Breastfeeding protects women from anaemia and maternal iron depletion due to lactational amenorrhea. (MDG5)