More than 800,000 child deaths and 2,000 breast cancer-related deaths could be avoided across the globe each year if every woman fed their child only breast milk until 12 months old, a worldwide study has found.
New research, published in The Lancet today, shows that breastfeeding reduces the risk of sudden infant deaths by more than a third in high-income countries like Australia.
Breastfeeding until 12 months was shown to increase a child’s intelligence, and possibly protect them against obesity and diabetes in later life.
It led to a near 60 per cent reduction in necrotizing enterocolitis – a disease which attacks portions of a child’s bowel tissue and is a common cause of death in premature infants.
"The stark reality is that in the absence of breastfeeding, the rich-poor gap in child survival would be even wider."
An analysis of worldwide breastfeeding trends also revealed that mothers can reduce their risk of death from breast cancer by 4.3 per cent for each additional 12 months of breast feeding.
Despite the benefits, the study’s authors report that the worldwide rates of breastfeeding are still too low.
Around one-in-five children in high-income countries consume only breast milk to 12 months old, while one-in-three children in low and middle-income countries are breastfed only for the first six months of their life.
"The stark reality is that in the absence of breastfeeding, the rich-poor gap in child survival would be even wider," explains series author Professor Cesar Victora from the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil.
"Our findings should reassure policymakers that a rapid return on investment is realistic and feasible, and won’t need a generation to be realised."
The study’s authors estimate that increasing breastfeeding to near-universal levels for infants and young children could prevent over 13 per cent of all deaths in children under two.
It could also save the global economy a health bill of around US$302 billion every year.
"…Breastfeeding saves lives and money in all countries, rich and poor alike. Therefore, the importance of tackling the issue globally is greater than ever."
Australian government statistics show that 92 per cent of women successfully initiated breastfeeding from 2011-12 but this rate tapered off after 12 months.
Around 75 per cent of all Australian women breastfeed their child at four months, while 50 per cent breastfeed until six-to-nine months and 30 per cent from nine-to-12 months.
Only 39 per cent of breastfeeding was exclusive at four months and 18 per cent at six months.
Australian recommendations on breastfeeding advocate exclusive breastfeeding until six months and breastfeeding till 12 months and beyond.
Australian Breastfeeding Association ACT/NSW’s branch president, Nicole Bridges, agrees and says Australia still has a long way to go to meet the World Health Organisation’s goal of exclusive breastfeeding of babies to six months of age.
"The longer a mother breastfeeds her children, the greater protection she receives," says Bridges.
"In fact, a recent study concluded that for example a woman who has three children and breastfeeds each of them for two years each, halves her risk of breast cancer."
Member of The Lancet Breastfeeding Series Group, Dr Catherine Lodge from University of Melbourne says Australia should do more to support women to breastfeed for as long as possible.
"The outcome of the work, having described all the positive effects of breastfeeding is to encourage a supportive breastfeeding environment for those who can and want to breast feed," says Dr Lodge.
"Not all women are able to establish breastfeeding initially or to continue breastfeeding- ultimately this is an individual decision.
"A more supportive breastfeeding environment however may provide the means for women to establish breastfeeding and continue to breastfeed for longer."
Bridges adds that infant feeding should be looked at as a health issue not a moral concern.
"Therefore, it is important that we support women to breastfeed long term, and start to remove some of the pressure to wean prematurely and the barriers that prevent her from breastfeeding for a sustained period of time.
"The way a mother feeds her baby is her choice and a choice that is unique to each mother and baby, dependent on their individual situation and the amount of support and resources at her disposal."