Breastfeeding provides vitamins and nutrients that help infants develop important antibodies that reduce diarrheal disease and promote quicker recovery from diarrheal infections.
Breastmilk prevents death and stunting from malnutrition through ideal nourishment, and it helps develop the immune system, improving response to vaccines and preventing infections, including pneumonia and diarrhea.1,2 Breastfeeding also provides health benefits for the mother, reducing risk of breast and ovarian cancer later in life.3
In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, only half of infants younger than 2 months are exclusively breastfed.4 A lack of vital nutrients provided by breastmilk can exacerbate the vicious cycle of malnutrition and diarrhea, which contributes to physical and cognitive growth shortfalls.5 Educating mothers and health workers about the vital role that breastfeeding plays and providing support to encourage appropriate feeding are crucial strategies for keeping infants healthy, no matter where they live.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of age. As their nutritional requirements evolve, babies should receive nutritional and safe complementary foods after six months of age along with continued breastfeeding up to two years of age or beyond.6
1 Davis MK. Breastfeeding and chronic disease in childhood and adolescence. Pediatric Clinics of North America. 2001;48(1):125–141, ix.
2 UNICEF. Breastfeeding: Foundation for a Healthy Future. New York: UNICEF; 1999
3 WHO. 10 Facts on Breastfeeding. Available at: http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/breastfeeding/facts/en/index2.html. Accessed February 19, 2013.
4 Series on Maternal and Child Undernutrition. Lancet. 2008. Available at: http://www.thelancet.com/series/maternal-and-child-undernutrition. Accessed February 19, 2013.
5 Guerrant, RL, et al. Enteric infections, diarrhea, and their impact on function and development. The Journal of Clinical Investigation. 2008; 118(4): 1277-90.
6 WHO. Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding. Geneva:WHO;2003.
Photo: PATH/Tony Karumba