The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that children be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their life, with the first feed within the hour after their birth. Despite advice from organisations such as the WHO, the global prevalence of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months only reached 44% in 2020. World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) is an annual campaign that, aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals, generates public awareness and support for breastfeeding. The theme of WBW 2021 focuses on the survival, health and wellbeing of all, and the imperative to protect breastfeeding worldwide.
Mothers in countries such as the UK and USA are fortunate to have access to plenty of scientific information regarding the benefits of breastfeeding. Furthermore, they are also in a position where—should they have to or want to—they can safely use formula to feed their baby. Essentially, women in the Global North can make an informed decision and use their autonomy to decide if they want to breast or bottle feed. Famous figures have aided these decisions—such as first-time mum and TV presenter Laura Whitmore—who use their social media platforms to de-stigmatise breastfeeding in public (by posting pictures of them feeding their children). They also normalise the notion that breastfeeding is a unique experience and may not be for everyone.
However, not all women can make such informed decisions regarding their babies and bodies.
In the Global South, mothers are less aware of the benefits and importance of breastfeeding, especially in the child’s first six months. A survey undertaken in a rural village in Somalia found that most Somali women believed feeding newborn babies sugar water or butter was better than breastmilk. In Somalia, 67% of children born in health facilities are breastfed within the first hour; in comparison, only 58% of children born in rural areas at home breastfeed within this recommended time. Countries such as Somalia, where not everyone can access healthcare and/or the education level required to understand the benefits of breastfeeding, highlight the imperative to protect breastfeeding worldwide.
The issue is more important now than ever before. In a world of accelerating discoveries in medicines and science, how can something as natural as breastfeeding still not be entirely accessible in the Global South?
Although breastfeeding rates are increasing globally, they have made little progress in recent years. The World Health Assembly has set the goal of increasing the rate of exclusive breastfeeding to at least 50% by 2025.
Currently, Africa and the Americas have the lowest rates of exclusive breastfeeding within the first six months, compared to the rest of the world.
Naomi, a new mother from Liberia, shared her story about the help she received from Concern Worldwide, a charity committed to ending global poverty. Concern have been training community members in Liberia to give lessons to new mothers. Before meeting with Concern workers, Naomi used to feed her son with formula because she believed that he needed to have imported milk. After her son, John, became malnourished, Naomi began to visit Concern’s Mother’s Group. Here, she first learned about the benefits of breastmilk. Naomi has since used this newfound information to educate more mothers about the positive impacts of breastfeeding.
The organisations involved with World Breastfeeding Week also work closely with the International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes (the Code) to ensure that mothers are not being fed false information regarding breastmilk. Women in the Global South are at particular risk due to an absence of government regulation regarding marketing.
The Code was written in response to the infamous Nestle scandal. Nestle was accused of coercing mothers in the Global South into using Western-style formula (which they often struggled to afford, and were unable to prepare correctly or safely). Its aim, according to UNICEF, is to ‘regulate the marketing of breastmilk substitutes in order to protect breastfeeding’. It doesn’t want to eradicate formula feed from the shelves, but instead, make sure women are able to make an informed choice when it comes to feeding their baby.
Whether you decide to breastfeed, bottle-feed, or not have a baby at all, it is undeniable that all mothers should be able to make that choice for themselves. Most women in the Global North are able to use their full autonomy and education to ensure their children receive the correct nutrition in the important early stages of life. But, there is still an imperative to protect breastfeeding worldwide and reach mothers in the Global South too.
So, how can we help this World Breastfeeding Week?
If you are a mother yourself, you can share your breastfeeding stories—whether they are successes or challenges.
Alternatively, if you are not a mother, or if you would like to help women in the Global South who may not be aware of the benefits of breastfeeding, you can donate to, volunteer, or fundraise for charities, such as Concern Worldwide.
Words by Ruby Frost
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