We're Not Breastfeeding Long Enough and It's Costing Us

Research finds that many women—especially in the U.S.—are not breastfeeding nearly long enough to give infants the full benefits. Here's how to help.

Breastfeeding Positions
Photo: Lopolo/Shutterstock

We know how vital breastfeeding is for our health and our babies' wellbeing—but you may be startled to find out how few women are doing it. A global increase in breastfeeding would prevent more than 800,000 child deaths each year, according to the largest, most detailed analysis of breastfeeding in the world, recently published in The Lancet.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends breastfeeding for at least 12 months, while the World Health Organization (WHO) endorses it for up to 2 years or beyond.

Only 1 in 5 children in high-income countries, such as the U.S., are breastfed to 12 months. There, the breastfeeding duration is shorter than in low- and middle-income countries, where 1 in 3 infants 6 to 23 months are breastfed exclusively. The new report found that only half of newborns begin breastfeeding within the first hour of life—a recommendation issued by the WHO more than 25 years ago.

Duration is key

Sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia, and parts of Latin America had the highest prevalence of infants being breastfed to at least 12 months. In the U.S., 49% of babies were breastfeeding at 6 months old, while 27% were doing so at 12 months. The breastfeeding rate was below 50% in most countries, and lower than 20% in most high-income nations.

Denmark, Ireland and the UK have some of the lowest rates—just 3%, 2% and less than 1%, respectively.

Cesar Victora, M.D., Ph.D., a professor at Brazil's Federal University of Pelotas, said his research shows there's a common misconception that breastfeeding benefits only relate to those in poor countries. "Nothing could be further from the truth," he said in a statement.

Global benefits

Breastfeeding lowers the risk of sudden infant death by more than a third in high-income countries, and prevents about half of diarrhea episodes and one-third of respiratory infections in low- and middle-income countries. It also boosts intelligence, and could protect against obesity and diabetes later in life. The longer a mother breastfeeds, the more it reduces her risk for breast and ovarian cancers. The report states that increased breastfeeding could prevent more than 20,000 deaths from breast cancer each year.

The study also looked at economic reasons to promote breastfeeding. Globally, the economic losses of lower cognition were $302 billion in 2012. It costs about $231.4 billion in high-income countries such as the U.S. The authors insist that increasing U.S. breastfeeding rates for infants under 6 months to 90% would save $2.45 billion in economic losses.

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