UNICEF highlights 'global breastfeeding gaps' between rich and poor

By agency reporter
May 11, 2018

The number of babies missing out on breastfeeding remains high, particularly among the world’s richest countries, UNICEF said in a new analysis. Worldwide, approximately 7.6 million babies each year are not breastfed.

The analysis indicates that even though breastmilk saves lives, protects babies and mothers against deadly diseases, and leads to better IQ and educational outcomes, an estimated 21 per cent of babies in high-income countries are never breastfed. In low-and-middle-income countries, the rate is four per cent.

UK breastfeeding rates are some of the lowest in the world, and 150,000 babies in the UK never receive breastmilk in their life. Babies are much more likely to be breastfed at least once in low- and-middle-income countries like Bhutan (99 per cent), Madagascar (99 per cent) and Peru (99 per cent) than those born in the UK (81 per cent), Ireland (55 per cent) or the United States (74 per cent).

Sue Ashmore, Programme Director at Unicef UK’s Baby Friendly Initiative, said, “The UK has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world and it is a highly emotive subject. Many women have not breastfed, or have experienced the trauma of trying very hard to breastfeed and not succeeding. It is time to stop laying the blame for the UK’s low breastfeeding rates in the laps of individual women and instead acknowledge that this is a public health imperative for which government, policy makers, communities and families all share responsibility.

“Unicef UK’s Baby Friendly Initiative, which works with public services to support families with feeding and relationship building, has made great strides in improving standards of care for mothers and babies across the UK. For example, 100 per cent of hospitals in Scotland are now accredited as Baby Friendly and their breastfeeding rates have notably improved. Unicef UK urges the UK and devolved governments to build on this progress by implementing national infant feeding strategies to create a supportive, enabling environment for women who want to breastfeed.”

Within low-and-middle-income countries, wealth disparities affect how long a mother will continue to breastfeed her child, the data show. Babies from the poorest families have rates for breastfeeding at two years that are 1.5 times higher than those from the richest families. The gaps are widest in West and Central Africa and in Latin America and the Caribbean, where babies from the poorest families have breastfeeding rates at two years that are nearly double those from wealthier families.

“We know that wealthy mothers in poor countries are less likely to breastfeed, but somewhat paradoxically, we’re seeing indications that in wealthy countries, it’s the poor who are the least likely,” said Shahida Azfar, UNICEF’s Deputy Executive Director. ” These breastfeeding gaps across income levels are a strong indication that countries, regardless of the level of wealth, are not informing and empowering every mother to breastfeed her baby.”

Factors leading to higher breastfeeding rates vary. Countries like India and Vietnam have put in place strong policies to protect and promote breastfeeding. Others like Turkmenistan have very high rates of mothers giving birth in baby-friendly hospitals which provide high-quality support for breastfeeding. Almost all mothers in Scotland, New Zealand and Sri Lanka give birth at a baby-friendly facility. Additionally, cultural and political contexts, including support from fathers, families, employers and communities, play a decisive role.

Through its global campaign, Every Child ALIVE, which demands solutions on behalf of the world’s newborns, UNICEF urges governments, the private sector and civil society to:

  • Increase funding and awareness to raise breastfeeding rates from birth through the age of two.
  • Put in place strong legal measures to regulate the marketing of infant formula and other breastmilk substitutes as well as bottles and teats.
  • Enact paid family leave and put in place workplace breastfeeding policies, including paid breastfeeding breaks.
  • Implement the ten steps to successful breastfeeding in maternity facilities, and provide breastmilk for sick newborns.
  • Ensure that mothers receive skilled breastfeeding counselling at health facilities and in the first week after delivery.
  • Strengthen links between health facilities and communities, so that mothers are ensured of continued support for breastfeeding.
  • Improve monitoring systems to track improvements in breastfeeding policies, programmes and practices.

* UNICEF UK https://www.unicef.org.uk/


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