Low levels of breastfeeding put children at risk

Children in developing countries are being put at unnecessary risk of disease and death as they are fed alternatives to breast milk. According to a study published in BMC Medicine today, the amount of breastfeeding taking place falls a long way short of recommended levels.

In 2001 the World Health Organization (WHO) passed a resolution recommending that infants under six months of age were fed exclusively on breast milk, in part to protect them from malnutrition, pneumonia and waterborne diseases. Yet only two in five infants this age from developing countries are fed only on breast milk, and more than five percent of them are not breastfed at all.

In Africa only a quarter of infants under six months of age are fed exclusively on breast milk. The study’s authors write: “The size of the gap between breastfeeding practice and recommendations is striking. More attention should be given to increasing breastfeeding, especially exclusive breastfeeding, and to monitoring breastfeeding trends.”

The group of WHO researchers, led by Jeremy Lauer, examined a large number of studies about breastfeeding rates. These nationally representative surveys covered 94 developing countries. Their research revealed that although mothers are advised to continue breastfeeding their children up until they are two years old, on average 14% of children aged 6-11 months and 32% of children aged 12-23 months are not given any breast milk.

The rates of continued breastfeeding are particularly low in South America and the Caribbean with only 37% of children over one year old being fed at least some breast milk. The situation is probably worse that this study concludes, as the original surveys may well have overestimated the number of children that are exclusively breastfed.

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Gemma Bradley BioMed Central

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