01/08/2017 12:24 PM AEST | Updated 01/08/2017 12:24 PM AEST

Breastfeeding Mothers Aren't Getting The Support They Need

More reinforcement is needed for both breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding parents.

Evidence shows that breastfeeding has cognitive and health benefits for both infants and their mothers.
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Evidence shows that breastfeeding has cognitive and health benefits for both infants and their mothers.

Despite the undisputed benefits of breastfeeding, both mothers and children around the world are failing to receive the support they need, a new report has shown.

'The Global Breastfeeding Scorecard', commissioned by UNICEF and the World Health Organization in collaboration with the Global Breastfeeding Collective, evaluated 194 nations and found support for breastfeeding to be severely lacking across the board.

Despite WHO recommendations, it was found only 40 per cent of children under six months were being exclusively breast fed (fed nothing but breast milk), while only 23 countries out of the 149 had exclusive breastfeeding rates above 60 percent. Australia was not one of them.

Evidence has shown time and time again that the benefits of breastfeeding are very real and apply to both mother and child, including decreasing mothers' risks of breast cancer and preventing a host of childhood illnesses.

"Babies who are breastfed are at less risk of infection, sudden infant death syndrome, and atopic diseases like asthma, eczema, and hay fever," Australian Medical Association president, Dr Michael Gannon, said.

"The maternal antibodies in breast milk help to protect infants before they are old enough for their first childhood vaccinations.

"Babies who are breastfed are less likely to become obese or develop type 2 diabetes as children and teenagers, and are less at risk of high blood pressure.

"Breastfeeding helps mothers bond with their babies, recover from childbirth, and regain their pre-pregnancy body weight, and it is also associated with reduced risk of some cancers."

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In Australia, 96 per cent of new mothers start out breastfeeding their baby, but many do not persist to the recommended six months.

Given the weight of evidence supporting the links between breastfeeding and mother and infant health, it seems ludicrous the practice hasn't received further support on a global scale. And that's not even mentioning the potential economic gains.

Analysis accompanying the scorecard revealed an annual investment of only US$4.70 per newborn would increase the global rate of exclusive breastfeeding among children under six months to 50 per cent by 2025.

According to 'Nurturing the Health and Wealth of Nations: The Investment Case for Breastfeeding', this small investment could save the lives of 520,000 children under the age of five and potentially translate into US$300 billion in economic gains over 10 years.

The investment case for breastfeeding

  • Breastfeeding is one of the best investments in global health: every $1 invested in breastfeeding generates $35 in economic returns.
  • In China, India, Nigeria, Mexico and Indonesia alone, inadequate breastfeeding is responsible for more than 236,000 child deaths each year; in these countries, the estimated future economic cost of mortality and cognitive losses attributed to inadequate breastfeeding are estimated to be almost $119 billion per year.
  • In order to meet the World Health Assembly target of increasing the percentage of children under 6 months of age who are exclusively breastfed to at least 50 percent by 2025, an additional $5.7 billion is required. This investment translates to just $4.70 per newborn.
  • In Australia, while many mothers start off breastfeeding, many failed to persist to the recommended six months.

Source: 'Nurturing the Health and Wealth of Nations: The Investment Case for Breastfeeding'.

In Australia, the rate of women who start off breastfeeding is very high (96 percent according to the AMA), though this number declines rapidly in the first few months of a child's life.

"We know that many mothers do not persist with breastfeeding. Only 39 per cent of infants are exclusively breastfed to four months, and just 15 per cent to six months," Gannon said.

"This highlights the need for more support to allow mothers to extend the duration of their breastfeeding.

"Women can be discharged from hospital as early as six hours after giving birth, long before their milk has come in. Women should only be discharged when they are physically and emotionally ready to return home, recognising that each family will have unique needs."

Former Greens Senator Larissa Waters made headlines around the world when she breastfed her daughter while passing a motion in parliament earlier this year.

Of course, it should be noted that while external factors such as social stigma, lack of government investment and the pressure for women to return to work may impact on a woman's decision to cease breastfeeding, not all women are physically able to exclusively breastfeed for a prolonged period of time.

As such, the AMA has also called for support for non-breastfeeding parents in its recently released 'Infant Feeding and Parental Health 2017 Position Statement'.

"Mothers may feel a sense of guilt or failure, and it is important that their GPs and other medical practitioners reassure them about the efficacy and safety of formula feeding, and work to remove any stigma," Gannon said.

"Although it is different in composition, infant formula is an adequate source of nutrients. Parents seeking to bottle feed their infants need support and guidance about how much and how often to feed their infant, how to recognise when to feed their infant, and how to sterilise and prepare formula.

"Hospital-based milk banks provide a valuable source of nutrients for infants with a clinical need for donor human milk, such as those who are premature or underweight."

"Parents should be educated about the potential harms of sourcing unpasteurised and untested milk for their infants, to ensure they are able to make informed decisions."