Recently during a special baptism, Pope Francis told the babies’ mothers, “If they are hungry, mothers, feed them. Because they are the most important people here.” Watching the Pope encourage mothers to breastfeed their baby in Sistine Chapel, breastfeeding advocates were thrilled. After all, we don’t see politicians or celebrities send messages in support of public breastfeeding very often.
The extraordinary benefits of breastfeeding are strongly backed up by scientific evidence. Statistics shows that each year, 800,000 children under five in developing countries die because of poor breastfeeding practices. An exclusively breastfed child has a 14 times greater chance of survival in the first six months than a non-breastfed child, because breastfeeding reduces deaths from acute respiratory infection and diarrhea. Initiating breastfeeding within the first hour after birth can reduce newborn mortality by up to 20%. Breast milk is a superfood containing anti-bodies, enzymes, long chain fatty acids and hormones, many of which simply cannot be provided by formula. Breastfeeding also builds the bond between mother and child.
But this strong evidence has not translated into political commitment. Investment in breastfeeding programs remained low, and only 39% of children under six month are exclusively breastfed.
According to UNICEF’s recent report, Breastfeeding on the Worldwide Agenda, this is because of the polarization and lack of a unified voice on the issue, a leadership gap and inadequate guiding institutions, and an ineffective advocacy and communications platform.
The report analyzes responses from 44 health and nutrition actors across the globe, finds that many policies reflect positively on breastfeeding but that latter has not been translated into actionable interventions at a program level. Where there are innovations, they are not implemented at scale, with few systems to report on coverage and the quality and impact of interventions.
The report also prioritized several key areas that require attention.
First, a political visibility and prioritization of breastfeeding. Mothers need support to begin breastfeeding their babies at life’s beginning and to continue as their babies grow. That kind of support from policy makers, health care providers, businesses, and communities needs to be built.
Second, a common and unifying advocacy agenda that all actors can rally around, including a space for dialogue on polarizing issues such as partnering with private companies to reduce malnutrition.
Third a recast advocacy and communications platform for the 21st century. Mothers today are increasingly raising their children in urban areas, working outside the home, and accessing social media. Advocates must make a case for breastfeeding that appeals to mothers and their families.
Last but not least, an urgent action to protect breastfeeding is needed as breast milk substitutes (formula) companies gain market share in emerging economies. Nothing worried respondents more than the threat this poses to breastfeeding. It’s hard to convince families enamored by formula advertising that breastfeeding truly is the best choice for a modern mother and her child(ren). Civil society groups report ongoing violations of the International Code of Marketing of Breast milk Substitutes.
When Pope Francis invited mothers to feed their hungry babies during a special baptism, he was also sending a clear message that women should breastfeed their babies whenever and wherever they want. A breastfeeding revolution may begin at Sistine Chapel. We may be at a crucial turing point for breastfeeding advocacy, because the surge in interest in nutrition has never been higher worldwide.
Politicians need to follow the Pope’s lead and provide leadership on breastfeeding promotion. Breastfeeding advocates need to follow the roadmap for action provided by UNICEF’s report. And the world need to work together to support breastfeeding–breastfeeding saves more lives than any other preventive intervention!
TO-WEN TSENG 曾多聞