Multicountry conference puts spotlight on importance of breastfeeding

WHO/Olga Kireeva

The WHO European Region has the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. Failing to provide babies with the best possible nutrition in the crucial first months of their lives can have long-lasting consequences.

To raise awareness and turn the tide on the issue, WHO/Europe hosted a conference in Moscow on 7–8 November that brought together representatives of 18 countries from the Region. Participants included professionals, researchers, civil society activists and representatives of nongovernmental organizations advocating for breastfeeding, regional and national policy-makers, and WHO experts.

The conference highlighted a number of key points:

  • Exclusive breastfeeding provides the best possible nutrition for a child until she/he is 6 months of age.
  • Breastfeeding should start within an hour after birth and may continue up to 2 years of age or beyond.
  • Breastfeeding benefits both the mother and the child:
    • It contributes to the intellectual development and psychological well-being of the baby.
    • It can protect the mother from the risk of breast cancer and other noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).
    • ­It prevents the baby from developing NCDs later in life – such as obesity, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, allergies and food intolerances.

The conference also raised several key issues that must be addressed in order to better promote and support breastfeeding in the European Region.

Breastfeeding policy action should start with governments

Dr Julianne Williams is a Technical Officer at the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases in Moscow, and she was a lead conference organizer. She came to work at WHO just prior to having her first child, and she has experienced a supportive workplace where she can breastfeed her son with the privacy she needs and on a schedule that is comfortable for her. But she says women often stop breastfeeding when they face obstacles in the workplace.

“At this conference, we discussed an important concept – breastfeeding starts with governments,” says Dr Williams. “They ultimately have the power to create an inclusive legal base to ensure every woman can make a healthy choice for herself and her baby.”

The idea that governments should take a leading role in supporting breastfeeding is strengthened by data: policy interventions to improve breastfeeding practices have proven to be cost-effective – that is, the money invested by governments provides returns in the form of significant public health benefits. As evidenced by the examples presented at the conference, a whole array of policy measures exist that can be tailored to the specific country or subregion’s needs.

Whole-of-society approach needed to boost breastfeeding

Governments alone cannot ensure progress towards increasing breastfeeding rates. This also requires the involvement of many different sectors including health systems, civil society and the business community. The way to ensure growth in breastfeeding rates is to create supportive environments: this includes informing women of the health benefits of breastfeeding, providing them with advice and support at the initial stages, and making sure they can breastfeed at work – and everywhere else. Global comparative analysis suggests that larger percentages of women practise exclusive breastfeeding in countries where laws guarantee breastfeeding breaks at work.

Additionally, WHO policy underscores the need to restrict the use and advertisement of infant formulas. Research shows that cutting down on marketing of formula contributes to more mothers choosing to breastfeed. As noted by Elena Baibarina, Director of the Department of Medical Care for Children and Obstetric Services of the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation, “The Russian media now advertises formulas less frequently than in the past. We would also like to eliminate advertisements in all maternity clinics. We must counter the ads with accurate information about the benefits of breastfeeding, presented in an accessible way. The information should reach the heart of every woman”.