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UNICEF: Breastfeeding Cheapest Lifesaver in History

NEW YORK (August 1, 2013) – Breastfeeding is the most effective and inexpensive way of saving a child’s life, said UNICEF on World Breastfeeding Week, which begins today. Still, less than half of all children under six months currently benefit from exclusive breastfeeding.

“There is no other single health intervention that has such a high impact for babies and mothers as breastfeeding and which costs so little for governments,” said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta. “Breastfeeding is a baby’s ‘first immunization’ and the most effective and inexpensive life-saver ever.”

Despite well documented benefits of breastfeeding, only 39 percent of children six months and younger were exclusively breastfed in 2012. This figure has not improved much in the past several decades, due in part to large countries where the breastfeeding rate is low and to the general lack of a supportive environment for breastfeeding mothers. China, which recently attracted media attention because its strong consumer demand for baby formula caused shortages in other countries, has an exclusive breastfeeding rate of only 28 percent.

However, countries with supportive policies and comprehensive programs that reach all communities have been able to increase their breastfeeding rates significantly. Cambodia, for example, has had success in raising exclusive breastfeeding rates from 11.7 percent of infants in 2000 to 74 percent in 2010. Togo and Zambia also increased the rates from 10 and 20 percent respectively in the late 1990s to over 60 percent by 2000.

At the other end of the scale, Tunisia’s exclusive breastfeeding rate fell dramatically from 46.5 percent in 2000 to only 6.2 percent by the end of the decade. The exclusive breastfeeding rate in Indonesia is also declining, and Nigeria has made no improvement over the past several years. Some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world are in Somalia, Chad and South Africa.

Such examples reflect insufficient global leadership on breastfeeding, as it continues to be undervalued relative to its importance in the life of child. There needs to be greater commitment, targeted policies and consensus to engage the world in promoting this vital practice.

Although breastfeeding is natural and may seem instinctive, it is essential to create an enabling environment for it to become the norm. Mothers benefit from the help of skilled health providers and community workers, as well as culturally-sensitive communication and protective laws and policies, particularly around the marketing of breast-milk substitutes and maternity leave.

UNICEF campaigns for exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and continued breastfeeding for two years or beyond, using creative tactics to draw attention to the issue. For example, it recently rolled out a campaign in Uruguay and Argentina, “Giving the breast is giving the best of you,” starring Uruguayan actress Natalia Oreiro, aiming to boost breastfeeding among working mothers.

Children who are exclusively breastfed are 14 times more likely to survive the first six months of life than non-breastfed children. Starting breastfeeding in the first day after birth can reduce the risk of newborn death by up to 45 percent.

Breastfeeding also supports a child’s ability to learn and helps prevent obesity and chronic diseases later in life. Recent studies in the United States and United Kingdom point to large health care savings resulting from breastfeeding, given that breastfed children fall ill much less often than non-breastfed children.

Apart from the benefits to the baby, mothers who breastfeed exclusively are less likely to become pregnant in the first six months following delivery, recover faster from giving birth, and return to their pre-pregnancy weight sooner. Evidence shows that they experience less post-partum depression and also have a lower risk of ovarian and breast cancers later in life.


The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) works in 190 countries and territories to save and improve children’s lives, providing health care and immunizations, clean water and sanitation, nutrition, education, emergency relief and more. The U.S. Fund for UNICEF supports UNICEF's work through fundraising, advocacy and education in the United States. Together, we are working toward the day when ZERO children die from preventable causes and every child has a safe and healthy childhood. For more information, visit www.unicefusa.org.

For additional information, please contact:

Susannah Masur, U.S. Fund for UNICEF, 212.880.9146, smasur@unicefusa.org

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