Get milk: The economic benefits of breastfeeding

As World Breastfeeding Week kicks off August 1-7, health experts say more nursing could save the globe $300bn annually.

Breastfeeding rally in Beirut
Women in Beirut hoist banners during a sit-in to encourage Lebanon's Ministry of Public Health to promote breastfeeding - and its economic and health benefits [File: Reuters/Mohamed Azakir]

Weighing an average of one pound (0.45kg) each, no two breasts are the same shape or size. But all are designed for the same vital purpose: providing infants with all the nutrients they need for the first six months of life.

Health advocates say boosting breastfeeding rates can save the world $300bn a year in healthcare costs.

As the globe celebrates World Breastfeeding Week this August 1-7 – and as it gears up for the third World Breastfeeding Conference to be held in Rio de Janeiro this fall – here’s the rundown on the surprising economics of breastfeeding.

How many babies are breastfeeding?

Fewer than 40 percent of infants worldwide are exclusively nursed for the first six months of life as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations (UN) and other authorities. Experts estimate that the low rate of breastfeeding – a figure that has barely budged in two decades – is costing the world 0.5 percent of its potential gross income, a total loss of at least $302bn per year.

What’s the link between breastfeeding and health bills?

Breastfeeding mother
Breastfeeding babies from birth through the first six months of life can protect infants – and their mothers – from costly diseases, says the World Health Organization [Mariana Bazo/Reuters]

Children who are breastfed have a lower risk of allergies, asthma, diabetes, diarrhoea, obesity, pneumonia, skin rashes and ear and respiratory infections. And mothers who breastfeed are less likely to become overweight or develop diabetes, osteoporosis or breast or ovarian cancers. Avoiding these health woes can add up to some significant savings. A 2016 study in the medical journal Lancet found that if 90 percent of infants were breastfed in the United Kingdom, China and the United States, it would save the healthcare systems of these three countries an annual $29.5m, $223.6m and $2.5bn, respectively. And that doesn’t even touch the savings to be gained if breastfeeding were embraced worldwide.

Can breast milk boost future earnings?

Perhaps yes. A 2015 meta-analysis showed that compared with children who were breastfed for less than a month, those who nursed for a full 12 months scored about four points higher on IQ tests, attained nearly a year more of education – and were earning about a third more by the age of 30. Numbers such as these are spurring economists – alongside medical professionals – to lobby for widespread nursing. “When we nourish a child with breastfeeding,” says Keith Hansen of the World Bank, “we drive future economic growth.”

What about infant formula?

Though formula can serve as a helpful and necessary substitute when breast milk is unavailable or in short supply, formula doesn’t contain the same vital nutrients as mothers’ milk. Nor does it change in composition – as breast milk naturally does – to adapt to an infant’s changing needs. Experts warn that infant formula can be an inadequate substitute for breast milk – and can in many cases be a detriment to maternal and infant health. “Aggressive marketing of infant-formula products all too often persuades mothers to abandon exclusive breastfeeding too early, or the worst cases, to put their newborn babies straight on formula,” says Dr Flavia Bustero of WHO.

What’s the true cost of infant formula?

While breastfeeding is free, formula costs an average $2,528 per year in the high-income countries where it’s most expensive. Formula also comes at an environmental cost. It takes 4,000 litres of water to produce just one kilogramme of breast milk-substitute powder. And in the US alone, waste from infant-formula packaging adds 86,000 tonnes of metal – and 360,000 tonnes of paper – to landfills every year.

Is breastfeeding becoming more common?

In 1990, the governments of 34 countries adopted the UN’s Innocenti Declaration, which affirmed that all infants should receive “exclusive breastfeeding from birth to 4-6 months of age”. But in the three decades since then, the battle to boost breastfeeding rates has trudged slowly uphill. One recent study calculated that it will cost $653m annually to scale up counselling interventions for breastfeeding in the countries that have pledged to support it. And that scaleup is complicated by the lobbying power of the $70bn-a-year infant-formula industry. As WHO researchers note, formula sales grow at robust eight percent per year and “unlike other commodities … seem to be resilient to market downturns”. Due to these and other hurdles, breastfeeding rates have since the ’90s inched up only 12 percent in the low- and middle-income nations where health advocates say breast milk is needed most.

How robust is the breastfeeding movement?

Health advocates are aiming to boost the global six-month breastfeeding rate to 50 percent by 2025. Projections show that annually, this would save the lives of 823,000 children worldwide – along with 20,000 women who would otherwise succumb to cancer. But experts stress that change will only come if countries start mandating six months of maternity leave – plus insurance coverage for lactation counseling and breast milk pumps. “Mothers are two and a half times more likely to breastfeed when the practice is protected, promoted and supported,” says one WHO document on the matter. Nations that signed the Innocenti Declaration are working to follow the examples of Cambodia (where mass-media campaigns boosted the breastfeeding rate sevenfold from 2000 to 2010) and Brazil (where mothers are breastfeeding six times longer than they did in the ’70s, and where the World Breastfeeding Conference will be held November 11-15). Health advocates are urging governments to embrace – and support – the maxim that “breast is best”.

Source: Al Jazeera