Breastfeeding: A Timely Investment in Health and Sustainability

From improving children’s growth and development and increasing their cognitive abilities to promoting economic growth, breastfeeding helps meet multiple sustainable goals.

By Sara Makarem

Global health organizations and committees are backing breastfeeding as a sustainable method to guarantee food security, boost the health of mothers and infants, and reduce ecological footprint.

In times of conflict, displacement and natural disasters, essential resources become limited, if not completely unavailable. Among the most vulnerable are newborn infants as mothers face significant challenges in accessing clean water, sterilized bottles and baby formula.

To address this issue affecting communities worldwide, international health organizations and committees are championing breastfeeding as a sustainable practice to provide food security, promote the wellbeing of mothers and infants, and maintain a minimum ecological footprint.

With its high nutritional profile, breast milk is strongly recommended by the WHO and UNICEF exclusively for infants from birth to six months and up to two years when supplemented with food. Breast milk, as a free, constant and nutrient-rich source of sustenance, provides a cost-effective solution for ensuring the optimal growth and development of infants where artificial milk may be costly, sporadically available or entirely absent.

“Promoting adequate infant and young child feeding practices in times of emergency saves lives,” said Dr. Bahia Abdallah, assistant professor and nursing program director at LAU’s Alice Ramez Chagoury School of Nursing. “Infants, young children, and mothers are particularly vulnerable during humanitarian crises,” she added.

Dr. Abdallah emphasized that human milk, and particularly colostrum during the first days, functions as a crucial first vaccine for newborns. “Breast milk contains more whey protein than animal milk, anti-infective properties, and essential polyunsaturated fats vital for brain and nervous system development, and retina health in infants among many other short- and long-term benefits,” she said.

These properties make infants less susceptible to infections and reduce the risk of artificial milk substitute intolerance and allergies, potentially saving families unnecessary costs.

Studies show that infants who are not breastfed have higher chances of getting sick and facing childhood obesity, diabetes, leukemia, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). As for mothers, not breastfeeding is linked to higher risks of premenopausal breast and ovarian cancer, gestational weight gain, and developing type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

By providing adequate counseling and primary care interventions to encourage breastfeeding, women gain confidence in their ability to initiate and sustain lactation, even if they have stopped temporarily. However, due to insufficient education and support about breastfeeding from healthcare providers, many mothers are compelled to make uninformed decisions.

One of the reasons this happens, said Dr. Abdallah, is due to the highly medicalized nature of many healthcare facilities, which do not operate under the WHO and UNICEF joint initiative of baby-friendly hospitals launched in 1990.

Essentially, this initiative, a mandatory requirement for many hospital accreditations, involves redesigning their maternity-related facilities to allow for the dissemination of breastfeeding information to women, promote and support the evidence-based practice, prevent the distribution of free or low-cost breast milk substitutes, and keep staff updated on policy implementation.

Strengthening the link between health facilities, health providers and communities is crucial to encouraging breastfeeding as a long-term investment in the health of both mothers and infants.

“The first 1,000 days of the child’s life are very important for growth and development and in shaping their gut microbiota and their overall health,” stressed Dr. Abdallah. “That is why all healthcare providers need to collaborate in making sure the mom and the baby receive the best care.”

Additional interventions include enacting paid family leave and workplace breastfeeding policies such as extended maternity leave and breastfeeding support room allocation for pumping and storing breast milk.