When a baby is born, her purpose is simple: to grow into a healthy child. Breastfeeding makes this possible by giving a newborn nutritional and immunoprotective benefits that impact their immediate health, as well as their long-term health and opportunity for success. As a development tool, breastfeeding is a key contributor to achieving the broader Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
This World Breastfeeding Week, USAID’s global nutrition project, Strengthening Partnerships and Results in Nutrition Globally (SPRING), joins our many partners in recognizing the importance of promoting good breastfeeding practices and the supportive environments that enable them.
In Tanzania, a mother breastfeeds her newborn just minutes after giving birth, initiating a positive breastfeeding relationship between her and her baby. Immediate breastfeeding in the first hour of life is a critical first step for ensuring the full benefits of breastfeeding. The nutrient-dense colostrum a mother produces after birth is rich with antibodies and provides her baby’s “first inoculation.”
At the most fundamental level, breastfeeding is an act of sharing: What a mother produces, her child consumes in a process of natural, non-polluting, low-resource sustenance. For the first six months of life, exclusive breastfeeding is a complete food source, providing all the food and water a baby needs, even in the hottest climates, reducing the need for clean water compared to formula feeding.
From six months to two years, complementary foods like rice pap and pumpkin supplement breast milk to address a growing child’s nutritional needs and help them transition to a varied diet of solid foods.
In many countries, community health workers play an important role in supporting breastfeeding. They meet with mothers, like these in Ghana and India, to monitor weight gain, provide nutrition and hygiene counseling, and to reinforce how breastfeeding fits into their baby’s healthy development.
In addition, health workers can use the opportunity to emphasize that nursing is a first line of defense against disease and childhood illnesses like diarrhea, and that it contributes to optimal cognitive development, setting kids up to perform better in school.
SPRING works with networks of health workers, communities, and local volunteers to help families learn about the benefits of breastfeeding and to access the support they need. To build evidence around effective approaches, SPRING is leading a two-year study to examine the effectiveness of UNICEF’s infant and young child feeding counseling materials, which are used in over 40 countries.
With immediate initiation, exclusive breastfeeding for six months, and complementary feeding up to two years, breastfeeding lays a foundation for a lifetime of nourishing the body and mind. But a mother must have access to a variety of high quality food so that she can provide the nutrients needed for optimal physical and cognitive growth while she nurses, and after six months when she introduces complementary foods.
From household gardens to industrial farms, establishing and maintaining sustainable agriculture practices is key to making healthful foods available to nursing moms and as children transition from breast milk to solid food. Senegalese Master Farmer Samba and his daughter, Sally, are proud of the water conservation and composting techniques they learned from the Yaajeende Project for growing their produce.
Foods that make up a nutrient-rich diet vary around the world, so SPRING supports nutrition counseling to help families learn what makes a healthy diet and what is available to them. In rural areas, this may mean growing food like these nutrient-dense bottle gourds in Bangladesh; while in urban settings, selecting quality foods may mean purchasing them from grocery stores and markets like this one in the Kyrgyz Republic. For many families, it is a combination of the two.
While having a variety of foods is important for mothers’ and babies’ nutrition, agriculture must first do no harm, being mindful of the demand on women’s labor expenditures. Although parents share caregiving and food production responsibilities, when women are farming and gardening it can take them away from young children who are still breastfeeding and make it difficult to satisfy their own need for additional water and food intake. These women in Ghana do both by bringing their small children with them to sort groundnuts; while this couple in Bangladesh tends to their garden and their daughter together.
SPRING is helping USAID understand how nutrition-sensitive programming can lead to healthier families and yields by better balancing the burden of labor in agricultural, household, and caregiving activities.
Exclusive breastfeeding until six months of age, complementary feeding until two years old, continued feeding of sick children, and maternal nutrition are proven actions to prevent malnutrition. While women and mothers are primarily implicated in these behaviors, they cannot be the responsibility of individual women alone. Fathers help, like this man in Niger, who feeds his son soft food, part of the transition from exclusive breastfeeding to eating solid food.
Communities and families can also support women in nursing by creating an enabling environment through policy-level gender protections, supportive community structures, and sharing labor of traditionally female tasks—like Jewel in Bangladesh, who takes care of the baby while his wife is occupied with SPRING’s farmer nutrition school activities, which are designed to help families diversify their diets. As a result of these supportive behaviors, women’s decision making power over their own health and the health of their children leads to stronger families, communities, and countries.
The positive impacts of breastfeeding aren’t just for the child—nor do they end with the first 1,000 days. By nursing her toddler, this mother in Niger reduces the demand that infant formula places on her family’s finances, on dairy production, and on waste and greenhouses gases generated by industrial production that contribute to climate change and sea pollution.
SPRING is working to change social norms around nutrition and hygiene practices through community videos filmed with local actors such as this woman in Niger. This video on breastfeeding will be shared with her neighbors to encourage discussion and uptake of proper feeding practices. Using community members as actors builds buy-in to the promoted behavior, develops local knowledge, and increases the perception that the behavior is possible.
Even with knowledge of all of these benefits, nursing often takes practice and new nursing moms can benefit from help learning the ropes, like this mom in Tanzania. Health care workers like this man in Benin can play an important role in promoting breastfeeding, and often serve as a trusted source of advice for moms. Health care workers, volunteers, and sometimes Peace Corps volunteers counsel moms on positioning, when and how often to feed, when and how to start complementary feeding, and how to maintain their own health, nutrition, and comfort while they’re nursing.
SPRING provides training and materials to health workers and volunteers on proper feeding practices through farmer nutrition schools, on-the-job training, and community support groups. In the Kyrgyz Republic, the project helps hospitals improve care through the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI), a system that accredits health facilities in global standards of maternal and child care. SPRING provides supportive monitoring to hospitals in preparation of BFHI accreditation and then supports hospital staff to implement a continuous monitoring plan to ensure standards are maintained, helping hospitals and facilities achieve baby friendly accreditation.
Once families accept breastfeeding as a standard care for a new baby, this simple act of sharing can lead to major changes in the course of a life, of a family, of the world. Across the globe, breastfeeding practices and norms vary, but the potential for positive impact remains the same: improving a child’s health and education, a family’s financial stability, a community’s sustainable development.
An increase in breastfeeding contributes to the sustainable development goals by promoting the health of children and mothers, reducing stress on the environment, and drawing support for empowering and elevating the role of women in their households and societies.