Why family-friendly policies are critical to increasing breastfeeding rates worldwide

01 August 2019
Mother breastfeeding her baby at her home, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
Mother breastfeeding her baby at her home, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

NEW YORK, 1 August 2019 From supporting healthy brain development in babies and young children, protecting infants against infection, decreasing the risk of obesity and disease, reducing healthcare costs, and protecting nursing mothers against ovarian cancer and breast cancer, the benefits of breastfeeding for children and mothers are wide spread. Yet, policies that support breastfeeding – such as paid parental leave and breastfeeding breaks – are not yet available to most mothers worldwide.

“The health, social and economic benefits of breastfeeding – for mother and child – are well-established and accepted throughout the world. Yet, nearly 60 per cent of the world’s infants are missing out on the recommended six months of exclusive breastfeeding,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “In spite of the benefits of breastfeeding, workplaces worldwide are denying mothers much needed support. We need to far greater investment in paid parental leave and breastfeeding support across all workplaces to increase breastfeeding rates globally.”

  • Only 4 out of 10 babies are exclusively breastfed[1]: Only 41 per cent of babies were exclusively breastfed in the first six months of life in 2018, as recommended. In comparison, these rates were more than half – 50.8 per cent – in the least developed countries. The highest rates were found in Rwanda (86.9 per cent), Burundi (82.3 per cent), Sri Lanka (82 percent), Solomon Islands (76.2 percent) and Vanuatu (72.6 percent). Research also shows that infants in rural areas have higher levels of exclusive breastfeeding than urban babies.
  • Upper-middle-income countries have the lowest breastfeeding rates[2]: In upper-middle-income countries, exclusive breastfeeding rates were the lowest at 23.9 per cent, having decreased from 28.7 per cent in 2012.
  • Breastfeeding at work works: Regular lactation breaks during working hours to accommodate breastfeeding or the expression of breastmilk, and a supportive breastfeeding environment including adequate facilities enable mothers to continue exclusive breastfeeding for six months, followed by age-appropriate complementary breastfeeding.
  • Working women do not get enough support to continue breastfeeding[3]: Worldwide, only 40 per cent of women with newborns have even the most basic maternity benefits at their workplace. This disparity widens among countries in Africa, where only 15 per cent of women with newborns have any benefits at all to support the continuation of breastfeeding.
  • Too few countries provide paid parental leave[4]: The International Labour Organization (ILO) Maternity Protection Convention 2000 (no. 183) standards include at least 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, and countries are recommended to provide at least 18 weeks as well as workplace support for breastfeeding families. Yet, only 12 per cent of countries worldwide provide adequate paid maternity leave. UNICEF’s latest policy brief on family-friendly policy brief recommends at least six months of paid leave for all parents combined, of which 18 weeks of paid leave should be reserved for mothers. Governments and businesses should strive for at least 9 months of combined paid leave.
  • Availability of longer maternity leave means higher chances of breastfeeding[5]: A recent study found that women with six months or more maternity leave were at least 30 per cent more likely to maintain any breastfeeding for at least the first six months.
  • Breastfeeding makes sense for both babies and their mothers[6]: Increasing breastfeeding could prevent 823,000 annual deaths in children under five and 20,000 annual deaths from breast cancer.
  • Not enough babies breastfed in the first hour[7]: In 2018, less than half of babies worldwide – 43 per cent – were breastfed within the first hour of life. 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. Breastmilk is more than just food for babies – it is also 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.
  • The investment case for breastfeeding[8]: If optimal breastfeeding is achieved, there would be an estimated reduction in global healthcare costs of USD 300 billion.


Notes to Editors:

About World Breastfeeding Week

World Breastfeeding Week is marked annually from 1 to 7 August to highlight the critical importance of breastfeeding for children across the globe. Breastfeeding gives children the healthiest start in life and is one of the simplest, smartest and most cost-effective ways we have of ensuring that all children survive and thrive. This fact sheet – marking World Breastfeeding Week – features new data from the 2019 Global Breastfeeding Scorecard, and the latest available evidence on coverage, access to family-friendly policies, and the health and economic benefits of breastfeeding.


[1] UNICEF IYCF Global Databases, May 2019; 2019 Global Breastfeeding Scorecard; http://www.fao.org/3/ca5162en/ca5162en.pdf

[2] UNICEF IYCF Global Databases, May 2019; 2019 Global Breastfeeding Scorecard; http://www.fao.org/3/ca5162en/ca5162en.pdf

[3] UNICEF breastfeeding policy brief, July 2019; ILO, World Social Protection Report 2017-19: Universal Social Protection to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals [Executive summary], November 2017

[4] 2019 Global Breastfeeding Scorecard; UNICEF policy brief on family-friendly policies

[5] UNICEF breastfeeding policy brief, July 2019; Navarro-Rosenblatt, et al, ‘Maternity Land its Impact on Breastfeeding: A review of the literature’, Breastfeeding Medicine, vol. 13, no. 9, November 2018, pp.589–597

[6] 2019 Global Breastfeeding Scorecard; Victora CG, Bahl R, Barros AJ, França GV, Horton S, Krasevec J, Murch S, Sankar MJ, Walker N, Rollins NC, Group TL. Breastfeeding in the 21st century: epidemiology, mechanisms, and lifelong effect. The Lancet. 2016;387(10017):475-90

[7] 2019 Global Breastfeeding Scorecard; https://data.unicef.org/resources/first-hour-life-new-report-breastfeeding-practices/

[8] UNICEF breastfeeding policy brief, July 2019; Rollins, Nigel, et al., ‘Why Invest, and What it Will Take to Improve Breastfeeding Practices?’, The Lancet, vol. 387, no. 10017, January 2016, pp.49). Countries’ investment towards improving breastfeeding practices would result in US $35 of economic return per dollar invested.


Media contacts

Georgina Diallo
UNICEF Europe and Central Asia
Tel: +1 917 238 1559
Sabrina Sidhu
Tel: +1 917 476 1537


UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across more than 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone.

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