Just 1 in 5 children in high-income countries are breastfed to 12 months, whilst only 1 in 3 children in low and middle-income countries are exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months. As a result, millions of children are failing to receive the full benefits provided by breastfeeding. The findings come from the largest and most detailed analysis to quantify levels, trends, and benefits of breastfeeding around the world, published in The Lancet.
New estimates produced for the two-part Series reveal that increasing breastfeeding to near-universal levels for infants and young children could save over 800,000 children's lives a year worldwide, equivalent to 13% of all deaths in children under two, and prevent an extra 20,000 deaths from breast cancer every year.
Although breastfeeding is one of the most effective preventive health measures for children and mothers regardless of where they live, it has been overlooked as a critical need for the health of the population, say the authors.
"There is a widespread misconception that the benefits of breastfeeding only relate to poor countries. Nothing could be further from the truth," says Series author Professor Cesar Victora from the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil. "Our work for this Series clearly shows that breastfeeding saves lives and money in all countries, rich and poor alike. Therefore, the importance of tackling the issue globally is greater than ever."
Analysis of data from 28 systematic reviews and meta-analyses, of which 22 were commissioned specifically for the Series, indicate that breastfeeding not only has multiple health benefits for children and mothers, but it also has dramatic effects on life expectancy. For example, in high-income countries breastfeeding reduces the risk of sudden infant deaths by more than a third, while in low-and middle-income countries about half of all diarrhea episodes and a third of respiratory infections could be avoided by breastfeeding. It also increases intelligence, and might protect against obesity and diabetes in later life. For mothers, longer-duration breastfeeding reduces the risks of breast cancer and ovarian cancer.