We know breast is best, and now new research quantifies what that really means for the health of kids worldwide.
mom breastfeeding baby at home
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New research shows if nearly every mother in the world breastfed her baby, 823,000 deaths of children under age 5 could be prevented each year. And, 22,000 maternal deaths from breast cancer could be prevented if women breastfed for up to two years in lower- and middle-income countries, and up to a year in higher-income countries. But governments still aren't doing enough to support breastfeeding, according to a two-part Lancet study, which is the most comprehensive review of the subject ever.

Researchers note the multitude of benefits to babies being breastfed for longer periods of time, including higher IQs, less risk of infection, protection against diabetes and obesity, and lower rates of death. There are benefits for mom, too, including protection against breast and ovarian cancer, and type 2 diabetes.

While 80 percent of newborns receive breast milk worldwide, in lower- and middle-income countries, just 37 percent of children ages 6 months and older are exclusively breastfed. Poor government policies, lack of community support, and aggressive formula marketing may be to blame for why breastfeeding rates aren't what they should be, according to researchers.

"The success or failure of breastfeeding should not be seen solely as the responsibility of the woman. Her ability to breastfeed is very much shaped by the support and the environment in which she lives. There is a broader responsibility of governments and society to support women through policies and programmes in the community," explains Dr. Nigel Rollins of the World HealthOrganization (WHO).

What I found interesting about this study is the finding that women in higher income communities tend to breastfeed for less time than in poorer areas. Rollins's take: "Not breastfeeding is seen as the modern and sophisticated thing to do – it seems convenient, it allows women to get back to work, it's all the things you want to 'achieve.' We've seen this trajectory with developed countries and don't want it to play out a second time in low- and middle-income countries."

The study authors hope their research will encourage governments to do more to educate women about the benefits of breastfeeding, and to support them in their efforts. It should be in their best interests, as the lack of breastfeeding places a major financial burden on the worldwide economy, researchers say, given the health repercussions. Specific ways to promote breastfeeding include raising awareness, improving maternity leave regulations, and establishing nursing breaks and rooms for working mothers.

The takeaway: if you can breastfeed for an extended period of time, do it. It's cost-effective, and most importantly, it's the healthiest choice for you and your baby, as countless studies have shown.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.