The World Health Organization considers breastmilk the best source of nourishment for babies, and a generation of mothers have grown up hearing that "breast is best" (though we all know that fed is actually truly best). So when a recent report from The New York Times revealed the American government's strong opposition to a breastfeeding resolution at the World Health Assembly, many mothers and breastfeeding advocates wondered why.
The resolution comes after authors of a United Nations-backed study released last summer called on governments to further promote breastfeeding by enforcing guidelines around formula marketing and by legislating paid maternity leave policies.
Officials from the Department of Health and Human Services say they have reasons for opposing the resolution as it was originally written, including the intent to support mothers who need alternatives to breastfeeding. But there are at least 10 reasons why the the United States should support such a breastfeeding policy.
1. Because not a single country in the world meets all the recommended standards for breastfeeding
It's true, and the rates in the United States are lower than those in other parts of the world. According to the Global Breastfeeding Scorecard, fewer than 25% of American mothers breastfeed exclusively for the first six months, which is attributed in part to inadequate cultural support for breastfeeding and pumping moms.
2. The benefits of breastfeeding are well documented
Study after study has found that breastfeeding offers optimal nutritional and immune system benefits. Being breastfed lowers a baby's risks for asthma, obesity, type 2 diabetes, ear and respiratory infections and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), according to the Centers for Disease Control. Breastfeeding has also been linked to better heart health for mothers.
3. Breastfeeding can save lives
That same study suggests the lives of more than 823,000 children could be saved annually in lower income countries if exclusive breastfeeding was standard practice globally. Some 20,000 maternal deaths could be prevented, according to the researchers, because breastfeeding also has a lasting impact on a mother's health.
4. Breastfeeding could save billions of dollars
A 2016 study published in The Lancet estimates the adoption of exclusive breastfeeding would result in a savings of $300 billion dollars in health care spending, as babies would experience fewer infections and protection against health issues like obesity and diabetes.
5. Because women need support to succeed in breastfeeding
According to UNICEF, "Breastfeeding is not just a one woman job. It requires encouragement and support from skilled counsellors, family members, health care providers, employers, policymakers and others."
If countries want to increase their breastfeeding rates, they must first increase the support they provide to new mothers. This means developing policies to make sure mothers have access to paid family leave, paid breastfeeding breaks at work, and skilled lactation counseling among other resources. It also means putting controls in place to ensure formula marketers are not overly aggressive or inaccurate in their statements.
6. Without clean water, formula feeding can be dangerous
For millions of families around the world, reliable access to clean water and sterile bottles is far from a guarantee. Because babies can be exposed to water-borne pathogens through formula feeding, the promotion of exclusive breastfeeding is truly a matter of life or death in regions where access to clean water is restricted.
7. Because the American Academy of Pediatrics does
In a statement to Motherly, Dr. Colleen Kraft, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, states the AAP "strongly recommends" breastfeeding as the preferred feeding method for all infants.
"The AAP agrees we should promote, protect and support breastfeeding globally and in the U.S., and supports public policies that support mothers who are breastfeeding," Kraft says.
8. Because we need to close the "breastfeeding gap" in America and globally
A lack of support for new mothers, combined with cultural views on infant feeding and marketing efforts have contributed to what UNICEF calls the "breastfeeding gap": In low- or middle-income countries, an average of 96% of babies are breastfed. But in countries designated as "high-income," such as the United States, the United Kingdom and more, the average rate is 79%.
There's not only a gap between rich and poor countries, but also a gap between income levels within those countries.
"We know that wealthy mothers in poor countries are less likely to breastfeed, but somewhat paradoxically, we're seeing indications that in wealthy countries, it's the poor who are the least likely," Shahida Azfar, UNICEF's Deputy Executive Director said in a press release earlier this year.
"These breastfeeding gaps across income levels are a strong indication that countries, regardless of the level of wealth, are not informing and empowering every mother to breastfeed her baby."
9. It isn't mutually exclusive to promote breastfeeding or support formula feeding
The national spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, Caitlin Oakley, tells Motherly "many women are not able to breastfeed for a variety of reasons, these women should not be stigmatized; they should be equally supported with information and access to alternatives for the health of themselves and their babies."
That is certainly true. Only, it is possible to both promote breastfeeding and support mothers who are not nursing.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists does so by both recommending exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, and also officially recognizing that a baby's mother "is uniquely qualified to decide whether exclusive breastfeeding, mixed feeding or formula feeding is optimal for her and her infant."
In the United Kingdom, the The Royal College of Midwives' new position statement on infant feeding advises that the midwives will both promote breastfeeding and recognize that "the decision of whether or not to breastfeed is a woman's choice and must be respected."
"We recognize that some women cannot or do not wish to breastfeed and rely on formula milk. They must be given all the advice and support they need on safe preparation of bottles and responsive feeding to develop a close and loving bond with their baby," RCM chief executive Gill Walton said when the position statement was announced last month.
10: Babies and mothers deserve a chance to experience breastfeeding
For some moms, breastfeeding is a time to nurture their baby's body while also nurturing the bond they have with them. Mothers and babies should get the chance to experience that connection, but too often, a lack of support and resources means mothers have to give up breastfeeding earlier than they intended.
It shouldn't be that way, but when mothers have short or non-existent maternity leaves, limited opportunities to pump or nurse at work, and don't have people they can turn to for help, breastfeeding becomes nearly impossible.
If the world doesn't first acknowledge the barriers that are preventing moms and babies from getting that chance to bond over breastfeeding, we won't be able to knock them down.