Over the past decades, evidence for the health advantages of breastfeeding and recommendations for practice have continued to increase. WHO can now say with full confidence that breastfeeding reduces child mortality and has health benefits that extend into adulthood. On a population basis, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life is the recommended way of feeding infants, followed by continued breastfeeding with appropriate complementary foods for up to two years or beyond.
To enable mothers to establish and sustain exclusive breastfeeding for six months, WHO and UNICEF recommend:
- Initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour of life;
- Exclusive breastfeeding - that is, the infant only receives breastmilk without any additional food or drink, not even water;
- Breastfeeding on demand - that is, as often as the child wants, day and night;
- No use of bottles, teats or pacifiers.
Breastmilk is the natural first food for babies, it provides all the energy and nutrients that the infant needs for the first months of life, and it continues to provide up to half or more of a child’s nutritional needs during the second half of the first year, and up to one-third during the second year of life.
Breastmilk promotes sensory and cognitive development, and protects the infant against infectious and chronic diseases. Exclusive breastfeeding reduces infant mortality due to common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea or pneumonia, and helps for a quicker recovery during illness.
Breastfeeding contributes to the health and well-being of mothers, it helps to space children, reduces the risk of ovarian cancer and breast cancer, increases family and national resources, is a secure way of feeding and is safe for the environment.
While breastfeeding is a natural act, it is also a learned behaviour. An extensive body of research has demonstrated that mothers and other caregivers require active support for establishing and sustaining appropriate breastfeeding practices. WHO and UNICEF launched the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) in 1992, to strengthen maternity practices to support breastfeeding. The BFHI contributes to improving the establishment of exclusive breastfeeding worldwide and, coupled with support throughout the health system, can help mothers sustain exclusive breastfeeding.
WHO and UNICEF developed the 40-hour Breastfeeding Counselling: A Training Course and more recently the five-day Infant and Young Child Feeding Counselling: An Integrated Course to train a cadre of health workers that can provide skilled support to breastfeeding mothers and help them overcome problems. Basic breastfeeding support skills are also part of the Integrated Management of Childhood Illness training course for first-level health workers.
The Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding describes the essential interventions to protect, promote and support breastfeeding.