Monday, 22 July 2013

Dear governments: stop procrastinating over breastfeeding

If I were in a position to speak to the world’s governments, this is what I would say:

As guarantors of the welfare of your citizens, you of course will want to move beyond reciting pious breast-is-best slogans and adopting, through your international organizations, still more resolutions, declarations, strategies and plans of action that essentially reiterate what has already been said over and over for the last 30 years. You of course will want to concentrate your energy and resources on implementing, systematically and fully, those remarkably sound and comprehensive consensus instruments that are already on the table (the Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding, for example). And as you know, the scientific and epidemiological evidence on which these instruments are so firmly based is both unassailable and expanding daily.

The welfare of your citizens is at this price, and the health of your economies depends on it much more than you probably know. Just ask your health economists to take a wide-ranging and comprehensive look at the question. Focusing narrowly for a moment to make the point: We’re not just talking about less diarrhea and respiratory tract infection here; we’re also looking at significantly higher scores for cognitive development. Brains are forever! Be honest now. What do you suppose is the cumulative worth, over a lifetime, of 5 to 10 points on an IQ scale for every child-citizen born within your national territory?

For governments of resource-poor countries in particular, I would like to recall why you began taking action in the 1980s to combat iodine deficiency, which is the world’s single most common cause of mental retardation and brain damage. It happened when you understood the size of this massive public health problem – with 2.2 billion people, or 38% of the world’s population, living in areas of iodine deficiency – and its implications for brain development, and therefore the educability and economic productivity of your citizens. Given the impact of faulty feeding practices on postpartum brain development, how could you possibly hesitate to take all-out action now in support of breastfeeding?

And let’s not forget breastfeeding’s role in lowering significantly the risk of morbidity and mortality among your children; and in protecting the health of your mothers, including by reducing the risk of postpartum hemorrhaging and anemia, increasing the time between pregnancies (thanks to lactational amenorrhea), reducing the overall number of pregnancies (due to a greater number of surviving children) and thereby enhancing the health and wellbeing of mothers and children alike.

By the way – and I’m addressing all governments here – have you given any thought to juxtaposing your national breastfeeding rate at six months, your infant mortality rate and your incarceration rate to see what correlations you might observe? Ironically, you may well find that, of the three datasets, breastfeeding rates at six months are the least easy to come by.

Thanks for listening.

This post was written for The Alpha Parent by James Akre. The work is adapted from his book "The problem with breastfeeding. A personal reflection" (Hale Publishing, 2006). As founder, chairman and CEO of the International Breastfeeding Support Collective, James focuses on the sociocultural dimension of the universal biological norm for feeding infants and young children, and on pathways for returning breastfeeding to the realm of the ho-hum ordinary everywhere. He is a member of the editorial board of the International Breastfeeding Journal and of the Scientific Advisory Committee of La Leche League France, and past member of the board of directors of the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBLCE).


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