Late last month, there was a stunning statistic in the news. More than 800,000 child deaths a year could be prevented if breastfeeding rates were increased worldwide. That statistic came from the most comprehensive review of breastfeeding research ever, in a report published in medical journal The Lancet.
Just two weeks later, breastfeeding was in the news again – this time, because government funding for the Australian Breastfeeding Association helpline is under threat. This 24-hour counselling service helps almost 90,000 mums every year.
The Lancet report makes it clear that three things are keeping breastfeeding rates low: poor government policies, lack of community support and aggressive marketing of formula.
Cutting funding to a breastfeeding helpline comes under the heading of ‘poor government policyy, doesn’t it?
According to the report, about a third of respiratory infections and half of diarrhoea episodes in low and middle-income countries could be avoided through breastfeeding. In high-income countries, breastfeeding cuts the risk of sudden infant deaths by more than a third.
Children who are breastfed for longer have higher IQs, less risk of infection and lower death rates than those who aren't breastfed or are only breastfed for a short time.
Shawn Baker, the director of nutrition for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which funded the report, says breastfeeding is "not some second-rate intervention we're trying to push on developed worlds".
"This is really state of the art, the gold standard intervention that's relevant anywhere in the world."
The report also found that breastfeeding reduces a woman's risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Increased breastfeeding could prevent 20,000 deaths a year worldwide from breast cancer.
Dr Nigel Rollins from the World Health Organisation, who co-authored the report, says breastfeeding success or failure isn't purely a woman's responsibility.
“Her ability to breastfeed is very much shaped by the support and the environment in which she lives. There is a broader responsibility of governments and society to support women through policies and programs in the community.”
Is the Turnbull Government listening?
Breastfeeding isn't for everyone. For some women, for all sorts of reasons, bottle-feeding is the right choice. But if a woman wants to breastfeed, she should receive all the support she needs. Because sometimes, that's what makes the difference.
A study in the UK found that 80 per cent of mothers who stopped breastfeeding in the first few weeks would have liked to continue, but felt they needed more support.
I rang the ABA helpline, late at night, just after I'd had my first baby. I spoke to a friendly, helpful woman, who'd been through it all herself. It was a comfort to know that someone was there, at the other end of the line, if I really needed them.
This report shouldn't make women feel guilty about not breastfeeding. But it should make the Government feel guilty about withdrawing funding from the ABA.
Have you ever called the ABA helpline for advice?