From The Archives | The Role of Breastfeeding in Achieving the SDGs

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By: Sarah Hodin, MPH, CD(DONA), LCCE, National Senior Manager of Maternal Newborn Health Programs, Steward Health Care

During this year’s World Breastfeeding Week, we reflect on the crucial role of breastfeeding in pursuing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed for at least the first six months and continue breastfeeding for two years. WHO aims to increase global exclusive breastfeeding rates to at least 50% by the year 2025.

Currently, only 38% of infants around the world are breastfed exclusively, and suboptimal breastfeeding contributes to approximately 800,000 infant deaths annually. Breastfed infants are at least six times more likely to survive in the first few months of life compared to non-breastfed infants. Breast milk helps prevent respiratory infections, diarrhoeal disease, urinary tract infections, obesity, asthma, diabetes and other life-threatening conditions in children. Furthermore, research suggests that breastfeeding protects mothers against breast and ovarian cancer, reduced bone density and possibly postpartum hemorrhage. Promoting exclusive breastfeeding is particularly important in low-resource settings where maternal and infant mortality and morbidity rates are high.

The connection between breastfeeding and SDG 3 (ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages) is obvious; but breastfeeding can also help us achieve the other SDGs. For example, breast milk is not only the best source of nutrition for infants—it is also available globally regardless of socioeconomic status. Therefore, encouraging and supporting women in low-resource settings to breastfeed can play a vital role in achieving SDG 1 (end poverty in all of its forms everywhere), SDG 2 (end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture) and SDG 10 (reduce inequality within and among countries).

Since breastfeeding is associated with positive health outcomes for mothers and babies throughout the life course, its benefits continue to affect women as they age and children as they grow into adults. Healthy children and adults are better students, better workers and more productive members of their communities, which has implications for SDG 4 (ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all), SDG 8 (promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all) and SDG 9 (build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation).

Breastfeeding can also be considered a part of the sexual and reproductive health rights agenda, which is a crucial component of SDG 5 (achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls). Lastly, since breast milk is a natural, renewable food source that does not require packaging or distribution, breastfeeding is beneficial for the environment, which is the general focus of SDGs 6, 7, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15. Though each SDG has its own objective, the SDG agenda emphasizes the importance of considering how these goals are interconnected and thinking holistically about global development.

Although the benefits of breastfeeding are well documented, breastfeeding rates remain low in many settings, and large disparities persist both within and among countries. As we approach the one-year anniversary of adopting the SDGs, prioritizing interventions to encourage breastfeeding around the world is more important than ever.

Learn more about breastfeeding on the MHTF website.

Visit the World Breastfeeding Week website.

Watch this two-minute video to learn more about the SDGs.