North America Has World’s Lowest Exclusive Breastfeeding Rate

Barely over a quarter of babies in North America are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life – far lower than anywhere else in the world.

The US has yet to sign the International Code on Marketing Breast-Milk Substitutes, adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1981 to curb the aggressive marketing of formula milk, while its maternity leave benefits also lag behind many other countries.

The global rate for exclusive breastfeeding is now 48% – just 2% short of the 2025 target set by the World Health Assembly.

“South Asian countries have the highest exclusive breastfeeding rates at 61% followed by East and Southern Africa with the second highest birth rate at 55%,” UNICEF’s Fatmata Fatima Sesay told a media briefing on Thursday to mark Breastfeeding week.

“Almost one in three infants in the Middle East and North Africa are exclusively breastfed and only 26% in North America are exclusively breastfed, so we really need to close disparities and gaps,” added Sesay, who is the agency’s breastfeeding lead.

“We have seen that 21 countries have increased their exclusive breastfeeding by at least 10%. Countries as diverse as Cote d’Ivoire, Marshall Islands, the Philippines, Somalia and Vietnam have achieved large increases in breastfeeding rates, showing that progress is possible when breastfeeding is promoted, protected and supported.”

The WHO and UNICEF advocate for babies to be breastfed within an hour of birth, exclusive breastfeeding – nothing but breastmilk – for the first six months of their lives, with breastfeeding continuing until the age of two.

Restrictive working conditions

However, many women struggle to reach these targets because their working conditions do not allow this.

Dr Victor Aguayo, UNICEF’s global director of nutrition and child development, called on all stakeholders to provide three important measures to encourage breastfeeding, which is fa better for a baby’s health and development than formula milk. 

“The first one is to ensure a supportive breastfeeding environment for all working women. This includes access to lactation breaks and facilities that enable women to breastfeed their babies once they return to the workplace,” said Aguayo.

“The second one is to provide sufficient paid leave to all working parents to meet the feeding needs of their young children. This includes paid maternity leave for a minimum of 18 to 24 weeks or more after birth,” he added.

“And the third one is increased investments in breastfeeding support including national policies and programmes that regulate and promote public and private sector support to breastfeeding women in the workplace.”

The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) senior Gender Specialist, Emanuela Pozzan, noted that 649 million women lack adequate maternity protection.

“We see that paternity leave laws are on the rise,” she added. “We have 115 countries that provide paternity leave – 33 more countries compared to 2011. So the trend is positive, and yet 1.26 billion men live in countries that do not provide paternity leave.”

While 68 countries have parental leave, this was only paid in 46 countries.

‘The ILO’s Convention 183 on maternity protection says women workers should be provided with the right to one or more daily nursing breaks or a daily reduction of working hours, which should be counted as working time and remunerated accordingly,” she added. 

“In 138 countries there is the provision of statutory rights to time and income security for breastfeeding. Eighty  countries grant two daily nursing breaks, and 199 countries offer the right to daily nursing breaks for six months.”

Only one in 10 potential parents have access to free and affordable childcare services. And in fact, 21 out of 178 countries grant universal childcare services in the laws for children aged zero to two years.

Image Credits: WHO.

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