Leading health organisations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, with continued breastfeeding for at least one year afterwards.
These recommendations are based on evidence based research, which clearly demonstrates the importance of breastfeeding for a mother’s and her children’s health.
When breastfeeding is suboptimal, meaning breastfeeding falls short of these recommendations, there is an increase in health and economic burdens. This was clearly shown in the recent Lancet series on breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding Saves Lives And Money
An even more recent study has provided further evidence about how suboptimal breastfeeding in the United States leads to poorer maternal and paediatric health outcomes and increased costs.
In this study, the research team modeled two groups. In one group, the ‘optimal’ group, most of mothers breastfed according to what leading health organisations recommend. This group was compared to a ‘suboptimal’ group in which mothers breastfed at the current rates in the US.
Then, using existing research and government data, they projected the rates and costs of diseases that suboptimal breastfeeding could lead too.
So, what did this study find?
Breastfeeding As Recommended Can Save Lives And Billions of Dollars
This study found current breastfeeding rates in the US are associated with an excess of 3,340 premature maternal and child deaths.
Almost 80% of the deaths were found to be maternal and mainly due to heart attack, breast cancer and diabetes.
Excess child deaths were mainly due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and necrotising enterocolitis, a serious intestinal disease.
“Breastfeeding has long been framed as a child health issue, however it is clearly a women's health issue as well,” said study co-author Dr. Eleanor Bimla Schwarz, professor of medicine at UC Davis Health System.
“Breastfeeding helps prevent cancer, diabetes and heart disease, yet many women have no idea breastfeeding has any of these benefits.”
The study also found that suboptimal breastfeeding was associated with $3.0 billion for medical costs, $1.3 billion for non-medical costs, and $14.2 billion for premature death costs.
Optimal Breastfeeding Could Result In Substantial Public Health Improvements
So, how many women would need to breastfeed as recommended by leading health organisations to prevent one case of various health problems?
This study found that to prevent one case of the following health problems, the following number of women would need to breastfeed as recommended:
- infant gastrointestinal infection, 0.8
- ear infection, 3
- hospitalisation for lower respiratory tract infection, 95
- maternal high blood pressure, 55
- diabetes, 162
- heart attack, 235
- one maternal or child death, 597
These results are very significant. Any one intervention which could result in numbers needed to treat for the above health problems would be seen as a miracle by many medical academics.
It’s clear that more needs to be done to help more women to breastfeed optimally. This would result in significant health and cost savings.
As lead author Dr. Melissa Bartick, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the Cambridge Health Alliance says: “Breastfeeding is far more beneficial in preventing disease and reducing costs than previously estimated. The results should compel all hospitals to develop programs aimed at helping new moms learn to breastfeed their babies.”