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10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the Global Issue of Breastfeeding

Not just for feeding babies, breastfeeding reduces infant and mother mortality, provides valuable nutrition, prevents disease and chronic conditions, and improves local communities.

If you’ve ever spent any time around a birthing center, hospital maternity wing, or lactation consultant, you’ve probably heard the phrase “breast is best.” The World Health Organization, UNICEF, and many other medical and public health organizations also subscribe to this philosophy. Breastfeeding is not only nutritionally rewarding for a growing infant but also provides significant health benefits to the nursing mother. Access to breastfeeding information and resources is critical to growing families and public health programs worldwide, but is especially important in less-developed countries.

Mammals have nursed their young for millions of years. However, as nutrition continues to advance, is breastfeeding still the preferred way to feed human babies? According to the WHO, other global health groups, and public health professionals, breastfeeding is still the ideal method for giving infants the nutrition they need to survive and thrive.


Though it has long been practiced worldwide, there is a lot many may not know about this critical global topic. Here are 10 important things you may not know about breastfeeding:

1. The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding until 6 months and complementary breastfeeding through age 2.

What is meant by “exclusive breastfeeding”? WHO suggests that babies receive breastmilk as their entire diet until they reach the age of 6 months. After 6 months, they should receive breastmilk as well as developmentally appropriate foods that gradually increase in flavor and texture complexity and quantity as the baby grows.1

2. Breastfeeding should begin in the first hour of a baby’s life.

“Early and often” is a good motto for breastfeeding a new baby. Introducing breastmilk in the first hour after a child’s birth provides valuable nutrition and protection for a baby, reducing infant mortality and preventing infections.1

3. Never mix breastmilk with other liquids in the first six months.

Mixed feeding, or combining breastmilk with other liquids or foods, is an unsafe and unfortunately common practice worldwide. According to UNICEF, mixed feeding can increase infectious disease and diarrhea in infants. It also can reduce a mother’s milk production, forfeiting potential future nutrition for the baby.

Even in hot climates, mixed feeding should be avoided. Breastmilk’s substantial water content provides protection against dehydration. Mixed feeding is also associated with higher transmission rates of HIV from a mother to her nursing child. Studies conducted in Africa found “[e]xclusive breastfeeding for up to six months was associated with a three to four fold decreased risk of transmission of HIV compared to mixed feeding breastfeeding.”2

4. Breastfeeding saves an estimated 820,000 children’s lives annually.

According to WHO, 45% of all child deaths, or 2.7 million annually, can be attributed to undernutrition. The organization estimates that breastfeeding could prevent 820,000 of these mortalities. Breastfeeding provides valuable nutrition to growing babies, infants, and children and lowers mortality, promoting healthy development and decreasing chronic disease risk.1

5. A baby’s saliva informs the formulation of the mother’s breastmilk.

When a baby is feeding at the mother’s breast, some of the saliva travels in reverse, into the mother’s breast. When the baby is sick, the saliva sends a message to the mother’s breast to produce more leukocytes, cells that fight infections.3 Mother’s breastmilk readjusts throughout breastfeeding to provide the nutrition a baby needs at any given time.

6. Breastfed babies have lower risks of ear infections, respiratory infections, asthma, diabetes, celiac disease, SIDs, and obesity.

Results from scientific studies indicate that breastfed children, whether they live in industrialized or developing countries, have fewer health issues. Breastfeeding reduces the risk of ear and respiratory infections, asthma, diabetes, celiac disease, sudden infant death syndrome, infant mortality, and obesity. The longer the presence of exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of life, the greater reduction in risk for these health conditions and negative outcomes.4

7. Breastfeeding is linked to higher income, IQs, and education.

While breastfeeding is linked to decreased negative outcomes like disease and child and infant mortality, it’s also connected to higher IQs and better cognitive development, educational achievement, employment, and lifetime earning potential. When more children are breastfed, these impacts rise to a macro level, improving employment, income, and education across communities and societies at large.5

8. Breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast and ovarian cancers for nursing mothers.

According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, breastfeeding can prevent nearly 20,000 annual maternal deaths from breast cancer.6 In fact, the longer a mother breastfeeds, the more her risk of breast cancer diminishes. Each year of breastfeeding reduces a mother’s risk for developing breast cancer by 6%.7

Breastfeeding also lessens breastfeeding mothers’ risk of developing ovarian cancer, a leading cause of mortality for women.5

9. Breastfeeding initiatives provide enormous returns on investment.

Analysis from the World Bank found that every dollar invested in breastfeeding initiatives creates $35 in economic benefits. Simply put, breastfeeding makes healthier babies who grow into healthier adults. Healthier people require fewer hospitalizations and prescription drugs and file fewer insurance claims. Breastfeeding also fosters cognitive development and reduces mortality, helping to create a smarter, healthier, and more productive workforce.5

Babies, mothers, and families aren’t the only beneficiaries of breastfeeding programs. Breastfeeding also benefits overall communities and societies. WHO data estimates that the United States could save $13 billion annually if 90% of babies were exclusively breastfed until 6 months.5

10. Breastfeeding mothers spend 1,800 hours nursing in their first year.

With the time commitment required, breastfeeding is no small undertaking. A full-time job in the U.S. with three weeks of vacation adds up to 1,960 hours annually. Meanwhile, according to conservative estimates, a nursing mother spends 1,800 hours nursing a baby in the first year. This realistically likens breastfeeding to a second full-time job.8

In order to successfully breastfeed, nursing mothers need the support of family members, employers, policymakers, public health professionals, and communities. Access to accurate breastfeeding information, resources, and community support are critical to infant and maternal health, especially in developing countries.1

Those in public health careers have an enormous responsibility to encourage best breastfeeding practices. When successful, mothers and babies thrive. In fact, since breastfeeding fosters cognitive development and healthier outcomes, babies grow to attain higher educational levels, find better employment and higher earnings, and contribute more to their communities and societies. Most importantly, in encouraging breastfeeding, community health workers and others with jobs in public health work together to save lives.

If you are interested in public health careers—such as those that could allow you to lead breastfeeding initiatives or work to solve tomorrow’s global health problems—a public health degree program could help propel you toward your career goals.

Walden University, an accredited university, offers a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree program online that can provide the foundation you need to make an impact in community and global health. Expand your career options and earn your degree using a convenient, flexible learning platform that fits your busy life.


Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,