Innovation of the Week: Increasing Breastfeeding Rates and Improving Global Health

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By Emily Gilbert

According to the World Health Organization, poor breastfeeding rates contribute to over a million avoidable child deaths each year. La Leche League International (LLLI) was established in 1956 with the goal of supporting mothers and breastfeeding through improved education, encouragement, and mother-to-mother support. LLLI has worked for over five decades to improve breastfeeding rates in the United States and since 1960, worldwide.

La Leche League Guatemala at a breastfeeding workshop in Guatemala. (Photo credit: World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action)

While breastfeeding rates in the United States have steadily climbed since the 1950s, breastfeeding rates in the developing world have been declining until recently. This decline has been attributed to changing socioeconomic factors and the perception that infant formula is superior to breast milk. For example, exclusive breastfeeding rates in countries such as Nigeria, Mali, Bolivia, and Thailand, were 4 percent or below by 1988, and have slowly risen since then.  While synthetic formula has been developed to mimic some of the nutrients of breast milk, it can never achieve the overall benefits of breast milk.  Nutritionally, breast milk is the optimal combination of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and vitamin, providing anti-bodies, bacteria, and white blood cells known as leukocytes, that help babies fight off infections and improve overall digestive health. Infant formula is able to supply some of the fats, proteins, but none of the antibodies.  In countries suffering from high infant and child mortality and malnutrition, improved breastfeeding would help address these issues, leading to a generation of healthier children and adults.

Recognizing the extreme benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and child, especially in the developing world, LLI has worked in the developing countries since the 1980s. Beginning in 1982, in partnership with UNICEF/Brazil, LLLI developed a project to train low-income mothers as breastfeeding counselors and assist communities in forming mother-to-mother support groups. In 1988, LLLI trained over 200 mothers from low-income neighborhoods Guatemala City to be breastfeeding counselors and assisted in forming community breastfeeding support groups that reached over 31 percent of mothers with infants in the communities. A similar project in Honduras that worked in 20 rural communities found that mothers who had contact with the peer counselors were three times more likely than other mothers to practice exclusive breastfeeding three months after giving birth.

When Hurricane Mitch devastated Guatemala and Honduras in 1998, LLLI chapters in Guatemala visited shelters and counseled mothers on breastfeeding benefits, especially as a means of preventing infections caused by contaminated water and poor sanitation. Today, Brazil, Honduras, and Guatemala are all home to in-country LLLI chapters, providing support to mothers and communities.

LLLI has fully operational chapters in more than 60 countries, and La Leche Leagues have been established in Gabon, South Africa, Russia, and Bulgaria. In 2011, La Leche League of Bulgaria established a pioneer website for mothers with information, expert advice and support on breastfeeding, while also publishing the first of its kind breastfeeding magazine for both parents and healthcare workers in Bulgaria.

Through its continued outreach, education, and support of mothers, La Leche League is helping to improve breastfeeding rates, leading to better infant and maternal health around the world.

Emily Gilbert is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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