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.