Last month was World Breastfeeding Week, which is a social media campaign designed to raise awareness of the importance and benefits of children’s healthy development and how breast milk plays a vital role in it. This was not a surprise of groundbreaking news to most of us, especially in light of the oodles of articles focused on the constant stigma and body-shaming often directed at nursing mothers. (Yes, we’re looking at you Donald Trump). But what we should also promote are the economic benefits a family can receive by simply opting to forgo formula. Let’s take a quick look at both the health and financial gains.
The current recommendation is breastfeeding within the first hour, exclusively breastfeeding (meaning nothing but breastmilk) for the first six months, and continued breastfeeding with complementary foods up to two years or more. It was estimated that 800,000 newborn lives can be saved annually from following these procedures, for a variety of reasons. Breastmilk contains vitamins and antibodies to help fight off viruses and infection. It reduces the risk of allergies, asthma, ear infections, respiratory illnesses, and diarrhea. It also supports healthy growth weight and lowers the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).
Breastfeeding impacts can be equally as important for the mother. An estimated 20,000 maternal lives can be saved annually from breastfeeding. The diseases that account for the majority of these deaths are breast cancer and ovarian cancer, both of which are reduced with breastfeeding. It encourages pregnancy weight loss and can help reduce uterine bleeding. It may also lower risk of osteoporosis. While not a direct health benefit, breastfeeding also gives mothers and babies the skin-to-skin contact to help babies feel secure and strengthen the bond between mother and child.
Recent research from The Lancet established these links and demonstrated some of the ways breastfeeding leads to economic growth. First of all, there are savings in healthcare costs from the health outcomes prevented by breastfeeding - $312 million in the US alone. Cognitive gains are exciting also since breastfeeding promotes healthy mental development, it is associated with a 3 point higher IQ across all income levels. While this may seem insignificant at the individual level, it has HUGE effects at the national and global levels. The lost earning potential amounts to $302 billion dollars each year, or 0.49% of world gross national income.
This is the first time that a number for the massive economic growth associated with breastfeeding has been established. Breastfeeding rates have remained stagnant for years, and the rate of babies who receive the recommended breastfeeding procedure has never surpassed 50%. We need to work to support breastfeeding through all channels, including workplace policies and community support. Based on all this exciting new data, breastfeeding is something we can all get pumped about.