On the occasion of World Breastfeeding Week, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organization (WHO) issued a joint statement highlighting the importance of breastfeeding and revealing that global crises have threatened the health and nutrition of millions of babies and children.
“As global crises continue to threaten the health and nutrition of millions of babies and children, the vital importance of breastfeeding as the best possible start in life is more critical than ever. This World Breastfeeding Week, under its theme, Step up for breastfeeding: Educate and Support, UNICEF and WHO are calling on governments to allocate increased resources to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding policies and programmes, especially for the most vulnerable families living in emergency settings,” UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell said in a statement.
She also emphasised that during emergencies, including those in Afghanistan, Yemen, Ukraine, the Horn of Africa, and the Sahel, breastfeeding guarantees a safe, nutritious and accessible food source for babies and young children. “It offers a powerful line of defense against disease and all forms of child malnutrition, including wasting,” Russell added.
According to WHO, breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure child health and survival. However, nearly two out of three infants are not exclusively breastfed for the recommended six months—a rate that has not improved in two decades.
The global health agency also stressed that inappropriate marketing of breast-milk substitutes continues to undermine efforts to improve breastfeeding rates and duration worldwide.
“Breastfeeding also acts as a baby’s first vaccine, protecting them from common childhood illnesses. Yet the emotional distress, physical exhaustion, lack of space and privacy, and poor sanitation experienced by mothers in emergency settings mean that many babies are missing out on the benefits of breastfeeding to help them survive.
Fewer than half of all newborn babies are breastfed in the first hour of life, leaving them more vulnerable to disease and death. And only 44 percent of infants are exclusively breastfed in the first six months of life, short of the World Health Assembly target of 50 percent by 2025,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the UN agencies called on governments, donors, civil society, and the private sector to step up efforts to prioritise investing in breastfeeding support policies and programmes. They also pointed out that there is a need to protect caregivers and health care workers from the “unethical marketing influence of the formula industry by fully adopting and implementing the International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes, including in humanitarian settings.”
According to WHO, over 820 000 children’s lives could be saved every year among children under 5 years, if all children 0–23 months were optimally breastfed.