Breastfeeding is one of the most natural things in the world. It is also one of the healthiest things moms can do for their babies, as breast milk provides all the nutrients they need to grow and develop. While not every mothers can or chooses to breastfeed, the World Health Organization recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed until they are 6 months old. Thereafter, continued breastfeeding with nutritious, complementary foods remains the healthier choice until they turn two. But culture heavily influences people’s views on breastfeeding; and how you do it, when you do it and for how long can vary greatly from country to country.
To offer some perspective, we are taking you on a little breastfeeding world tour. Here’s how breastfeeding rates compare in 9 countries around the globe and how these nations’ cultural norms affect breastfeeding trends.
1. The United States, where breastfeeding is recommended for one year and beyond, has seen a steady increase in its breastfeeding rates in recent years. That’s partly due to some powerful grassroots campaigns that normalize nursing with the participation of celebrities and staged breastfeeding sit-ins. The latest CDC report card of 2015 found that 81 percent of American mothers breastfeed at birth. The biggest challenge that the country face now is to get mothers to nurse longer. Fifty-one percent of mothers make it past six month and only 30 percent keep it up until the recommended one-year mark.
2. Mongolia is possibly the most breastfeeding-friendly country. There, breastmilk is recognized as incredibly nutritious and full of magical properties. Mothers are encouraged to breastfeed for as long as they can, resulting in many children nursing into their toddler years. More than 50 percent of children are breastfed past two years old. And their love of breastfeeding has even extended to their sport practices: Mongolians, who are huge fans of wrestling, like to say that if a male child nurses to the age of six, he will grow up to be a great wrestler.
3. The United Kingdom has a 52-week maternity leave policy, of which 39 weeks is paid. This should give new moms the perfect setting to nurse, it turns out that only 1 in 200 women breastfeed their children until they are 1 year old. This is the lowest rate in the world! Most women (81 percent) do start breastfeeding, but those rates fall to 34 percent by six months, and they continue to drastically drop from there. Experts point to the social pressures on new mothers to “get their lives back” quickly after having a baby, which can be overwhelming for a breastfeeding mother.
4. Peru has some of the best breastfeeding rates in the world! With over 30 percent of its population living near the poverty line, it is a poorer country. This, along with the health benefits of breastfeeding, has driven the Ministry of Health to take great measures to ensure that mothers don’t have to resort to buying expensive formula for their infants. In Peru, it is common to see mothers breastfeeding without shame in public. Ninety-seven percent of Peruvian infants are breastfed at birth and 67.5 percent are still exclusively breastfed when they turn six months. That figure is nearly double the global average of 38 percent.
5. France, the land of seduction and feminism, has a tough time fitting breastfeeding into its culture. Some women there like to say, “Your breasts are for your husband, not your baby.” And a recent bestseller in France, The Conflict: The Women and the Mother, by Elisabeth Badinter warns that breastfeeding is a Trojan horse rolling back the gains of the women’s movement and shackling women to “despotic, gluttonous babies who devour their mothers.” Unsurprisingly, this attitude is reflected in the rates with only 62 percent of babies being breastfed at birth and only 23 percent breastfed past six months. That’s despite the fact that the French Health Ministry have similar recommendations to those in the U.S.
6. Iran, like many other Muslim countries, consider it a mother's duty to breastfeed her baby. The Quran specifies that babies should be breastfed by their mothers or wet nurses for two years. However, Iran may have gone too far to curtail a woman's choice. Infant formula is only available there by prescription. Overall breastfeeding rates are high at a national level with 90 percent of infants being breastfed at birth and 57 percent past one year.
7. Norway is one of the few developed countries that have shining breastfeeding rates. In fact, it tops the charts, with 99 percent of mothers initiating breastfeeding at birth and 80 percent continuing past six months. The government offers a strong support network with one of the most generous maternity leave policies in the world. Mothers or fathers can take 49 weeks at full pay or up to 59 weeks at 80-percent pay.
8. Morocco views breastfeeding as a rather mundane activity. In fact, many African countries do not sexualize women’s breasts and consider them to be primarily for feeding children. So by and large, breastfeeding is done openly. As a result, babies are fed at the breast much more on demand with many more frequent, small nursing sessions. In Morocco, 95 percent of babies are breastfed at one point, with 57 percent still breastfeeding between the age of 12 and 15 months.
9. Japan encourages mothers to breastfeed, which resulted in a high initiation rate of 90 percent this past year. This is impressive considering that Asian countries generally have lower nursing rates. But Japanese mothers are quickly pressured to supplement by the older generation, and the majority of them end up doing a hybrid of breast milk and formula by the time their babies are 3 months old. Japanese women are also very discrete, and it’s rare to see public nursing. That said, the culture there is very accommodating, and many establishments have nursing rooms.
Photography from World Vision.