Breastfeeding is an unequalled way of providing ideal food for the healthy growth and development of infants; it is also an integral part of the reproductive process with important implications for the health of mothers. Review of evidence has shown that, on a population basis, exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months is the optimal way of feeding infants. Thereafter infants should receive complementary foods with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond.
To enable mothers to establish and sustain exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months, WHO and UNICEF recommend:
- Initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour of life
- Exclusive breastfeeding – that is the infant only receives breast milk without any additional food or drink, not even water
- Breastfeeding on demand – that is as often as the child wants, day and night
- No use of bottles, teats or pacifiers
Breast milk is the natural first food for babies, it provides all the energy and nutrients that the infant needs for the first months of life, and it continues to provide up to half or more of a child’s nutritional needs during the second half of the first year, and up to one-third during the second year of life.
Breast milk promotes sensory and cognitive development, and protects the infant against infectious and chronic diseases. Exclusive breastfeeding reduces infant mortality due to common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea or pneumonia, and helps for a quicker recovery during illness.
Breastfeeding contributes to the health and well-being of mothers; it helps to space children, reduces the risk of ovarian cancer and breast cancer, increases family and national resources, is a secure way of feeding and is safe for the environment.
While breastfeeding is a natural act, it is also a learned behaviour. An extensive body of research has demonstrated that mothers and other caregivers require active support for establishing and sustaining appropriate breastfeeding practices. WHO and UNICEF launched the Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative in 1992, to strengthen maternity practices to support breastfeeding. The foundation for the BFHI are the Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding described in Protecting, Promoting and Supporting Breastfeeding: a Joint WHO/UNICEF Statement. The evidence for the effectiveness of the Ten Steps has been summarized in a scientific review document.
WHO and UNICEF developed the 40-hour Breastfeeding Counselling: A Training Course and more recently the five-day Infant and Young Child Feeding Counselling: An Integrated Course to train a cadre of health workers that can provide skilled support to breastfeeding mothers and help them overcome problems. Basic breastfeeding support skills are also part of the Integrated Management of Childhood Illness training course for first-level health workers.
The Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding describes the essential interventions to promote, protect and support breastfeeding.