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Breastfeeding 101: What is the big deal about breast milk?

Aug 1, 2016

By: Julia Robinson and Amanda Young

This week Health Alliance International (HAI) is celebrating World Breastfeeding Week! This annual event brings together leaders in global public health to underline education and the importance of breastfeeding and all the health benefits it can bring for mothers and their babies.  

This year’s theme for WBW is Breastfeeding: A Key to Sustainable Development, linking advocacy and action to the adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, a UN initiative to end global poverty and improve health by the year 2030.


HAI is joining in with a worldwide effort to talk about different aspects of breastfeeding, so make sure to every day this week check out our blog and Facebook page every day this week to see a new topic related to breastfeeding!

Today we’ll kick things off by asking: So just what is the big deal about breastfeeding?  And why does the World Health Organization recommend that moms breastfeed exclusively for six months?  As we’ll see, there are lots of benefits for both the mother and the baby.

How breast milk benefits the baby:

  • Breast milk contains antibodies that help protect the newborn from common childhood diseases including: diarrhea, ear infections, and respiratory infections like pneumonia.
  • Breast milk also provides tons of fat, vitamins and nutrients that help with cognitive development.
  • This is especially true for colostrum, the yellow sticky breast milk that is produced by the mother during the first few days after birth. This is important for developing the infant’s digestive tract and helps the baby grow!
  • The skin-to-skin touch that a mother provides while breastfeeding aids with sensory and emotional development. A mom spending time with her baby improves the infant’s ability to feel secure in relationships.
  • Lots of studies have shown that children who have been breastfed have a reduced risk of being overweight, obese, and having Type 2 diabetes later in life.

Latch on NYC

 How breastfeeding benefits the mother:

  • Breastfeeding can help with spacing out the number of childbirths per woman because it is a natural form of birth control that is 98% effective when breastfeeding is exclusive.
  • Breastfeeding reduces the mother’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer later in life.
  • During the process of breastfeeding Oxytocin, a hormone that helps contract the uterus, is released. This both reduces uterus to pre-pregnancy size and also prevents postpartum hemorrhaging (one of the top causes of maternal death after giving birth).
  • Breast milk is free!  Unlike formula, breast milk won’t put a dent into new mothers’ budgets, which can be a huge benefit for low-income families.

Despite the undeniable benefits to both mothers and infants, why do less than 40% of mothers breastfeed exclusively throughout the world? Rates are improving year by year but a lot of children are still not being breastfed and this is not unique to developing countries. Consider the following:

  • According to the CDC, while 47.2% of American women breastfeed their infant at 6 months, only 16.5% of women in the United States are exclusively breast feeding.

Why should women exclusively breast feed? In addition to all the health benefits listed above, there are a number of risks associated with bottle-feeding and when solid food is introduced too early in life, there is an increased chance for a food allergy. Lower-income countries – such as those where HAI works –  have an increased chance of encountering these risks, such as the potential for contaminated water used in mixing up formula.


Bottle-feeding and formula feeding risks:

  • Infant formula contains no antibodies.
  • During the preparation of formula, there is potential for use of unsafe water and unsterilized equipment.
  • There is also a potential presence of bacteria in powdered formula.
  • Malnutrition can occur from over-dilution of formula with the mentality “to make supplies last”.
  • Breast milk is produced with regular breast feeding. If formula becomes unavailable, a return to breastfeeding may not be an option due to diminished breast milk production.

Although breastfeeding is extremely beneficial for both the mom and baby, there are number of barriers that can prevent women from breastfeeding their children. Breastfeeding is not necessarily easy or intuitive, and many women experience nipple pain, fear of not enough milk to sustain baby, and frustration with unsuccessful breastfeeding attempts. In the United States there is low social support for breastfeeding mothers and many times shaming of women who breastfeed in public.  In other countries, social and cultural practices sometimes encourage new mothers to introduce water, tea, or porridge into an infant’s diet earlier than is recommended for the health of a newborn.   Communities, health professionals, and families can all act to help support women’s decisions to breastfeed, and there are many social program that advocate creating a more supportive environment for women.

What’s next in our blog series…

Tomorrow, we will hear from Mary Anne Mercer, HAI’s Senior Maternal/Child Health Advisor in Timor-Leste.  How does Timor-Leste’s breastfeeding rate compare to the U.S.? Stay tuned!


Later in the week, we will address HIV and breastfeeding, why more women don’t breastfeed, and women and the workforce.

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Stand with HAI

Our Mission

Our mission is to promote policies and support programs that strengthen government primary health care and foster social, economic, and health equity for all. Our vision is a just world that promotes health and well-being, including universal access to quality health care.

Our History

Health Alliance International began in 1987 as a US-based international solidarity organization committed to supporting the public sector provision of health care for all.  Over 35 years, HAI conducted programs in 17 countries, with flagship programs in Mozambique, Côte d'Ivoire, and Timor-Leste.

Our Evolution

In line with HAI’s commitment to support and strengthen local public health leadership, as of October 2021, HAI fully transitioned global operations and active programs to locally-based, locally-led NGOs. Learn more about this shift toward local autonomy and equity in global health.

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