Breastfeeding: the best gift a mother can give her child

Boosting health, IQ and protection, breastmilk is the key to good nutrition for every child

By Emily Subden
Tijana breastfeeds her daughter Jelena in Serbia.
UNICEF Serbia/2018/Imre Szabo

10 May 2018

Breastmilk saves lives, protects babies and mothers against deadly diseases, and leads to better IQ and educational outcomes, yet rates of breastfeeding in Europe and Central Asia are low, with only 23 percent of the wealthiest families and 31 percent of the poorest breastfeeding up to the recommended age of two.

Empowering and enabling women to breastfeed needs to be at the heart of countries’ efforts to keep every child alive and to build healthy, smart and productive societies.

“Breastfeeding is the best gift a mother, rich or poor, can give her child, as well as herself,” said Shahida Azfar, UNICEF’s Deputy Executive Director. “We must give the world’s mothers the support they need to breastfeed.”

A mother breasfeeds her baby at a maternity centre in Tashkent region, Uzbekistan.
UNICEF/UZBA05022015/Pirozzi/2015

A mother breasfeeds her baby at a maternity centre in Tashkent region, Uzbekistan. 

The early initiation of breastfeeding – putting newborns to the breast within the first hour of life – safeguards infants from dying during the most vulnerable time in their lives. 

Immediate skin-to skin contact and starting breastfeeding early keeps a baby warm, builds his or her immune system, promotes bonding, boosts a mother’s milk supply and increases the chances that she will be able to continue exclusive breastfeeding.
 

A mother learns to breastfeed her baby at a maternity hospital in Fergana, Uzbekistan.
UNICEF/UZBA05032015/Pirozzi/2015

A mother learns to breastfeed her baby at a maternity hospital in Fergana, Uzbekistan.

Breastmilk is safe as it is the right temperature, requires no preparation, and is available even in environments with poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water. It’s also more than just food for babies – breastmilk is a potent medicine for disease prevention that is tailored to the needs of each child. The ‘first milk’ – or colostrum – is rich in antibodies to protect babies from disease and death.
 

A patronage nurse teachers a mother how to breastfeed in Kyzylorda city, Kazakhstan.
UNICEF/Kazakhstan/2016/Kim

A patronage nurse teachers a mother how to breastfeed in Kyzylorda city, Kazakhstan. 

In Kazakhstan, UNICEF has been working with patronage nurses to support mothers to breastfeed their children. The project has been running for several years and includes two visits during pregnancy and nine visits until the child reaches the age of three. As a result, there was a 14 percent increase in the number of children who were exclusively breastfed in the pilot region.

A patronage nurse visits a family in Kyzylorda city, Kazakhstan.
UNICEF/Kazakhstan/2016/Kim

A patronage nurse visits a family in Kyzylorda city, Kazakhstan. 

There are several reasons why a mother may not be able to breastfeed, or does not wish to do so. Reasons include low awareness of the importance of breastfeeding and long-term impacts, as well as not knowing how to breastfeed properly which can subsequently cause the mother a lot of pain. Patronage nurses work with mothers to try to overcome these obstacles. 
 

A mother breastfeeds her baby, while the father and the older son support them.
UNICEF/UN0202896/Serbia

Mother Jovana breastfeeds her son Aleksa (two-months-old) while older son Ognjen (18-months-old) and husband Nikola support her at a clinic in Serbia. 

Breastfeeding is not a one-woman job. Women who choose to breastfeed need support from their governments, health systems, workplaces, communities and families to make it work. 

UNICEF urges governments, the private sector and civil society to create more enabling environments for breastfeeding mothers including arming mothers with the knowledge to make informed decisions, and providing them with the support they need from their families, communities, workplaces and healthcare systems to make exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months happen.

Smiling parents watch as their baby breastfeeds at a maternity unit in Armenia.
UNICEF/UN038714/Pirozzi

Smiling parents watch as their baby breastfeeds at a maternity unit in Armenia.

In Armenia, UNICEF, together with the ministry of health and local health authorities, have created a sustainable parental education system at maternity and primary health-care facilities across the country to encourage breastfeeding and provide support to parents.

In a UNICEF-supported space for refugee and migrant families, two mothers breastfeed their babies.
UNICEF Serbia/2018/Pancic

In a UNICEF-supported space for refugee and migrant families in Serbia, two mothers breastfeed their babies. 

During the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe, UNICEF stepped in to provide support for children and mothers. Support included providing private spaces for breastfeeding mothers, nutritional guidance and breastfeeding support.

UNICEF supports action to improve infant and young child nutrition across Europe and Central Asia, aiming to ensure that every child has the best possible nutritional start in life. Through its global campaign, Every Child ALIVE, which demands solutions on behalf of the world’s newborns, UNICEF urges governments, the private sector and civil society to:
 

  • Increase funding and awareness to raise breastfeeding rates from birth through the age of two. 
  • Put in place strong legal measures to regulate the marketing of infant formula and other breastmilk substitutes as well as bottles and teats.  
  • Enact paid family leave and put in place workplace breastfeeding policies, including paid breastfeeding breaks. 
  • Implement the ten steps to successful breastfeeding in maternity facilities, and provide breastmilk for sick newborns. 
  • Ensure that mothers receive skilled breastfeeding counselling at health facilities and in the first week after delivery. 
  • Strengthen links between health facilities and communities, so that mothers are ensured of continued support for breastfeeding. 
  • Improve monitoring systems to track improvements in breastfeeding policies, programmes and practices.