In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is shaken at its core. Yet, the pandemic also had unexpected positive outcomes: carbon dioxide emissions decreased and people from around the world witnessed the benefits of having a cleaner environment. In a time when protecting biodiversity, mother earth and future generations has become fundamental, essential animal behaviours like breastfeeding—a lifeline in emergencies including during COVID-19—gain importance. “Support breastfeeding for a healthy planet” is a timely theme for World Breastfeeding Week 2020.
Breastfeeding: an essential human behaviour
All mammals suckle their young. Our human ancestors breastfed their babies for several years at least (2.5 to 7 years). The World Health Organisation recommends immediate skin to skin contact, early initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour, exclusive breastfeeding the first six months, and continued breastfeeding until 2 years or beyond.
Human mammals have, however, replaced their own milk for their own babies with cow’s milk. It is no surprise that breastfed babies have much higher chances of survival, are healthier, and develop better than their formula-fed bottle-fed counterparts. Scientific evidence is unanimous: “breastmilk is probably the most specific personalized medicine that an infant is likely to receive, at a time when gene expression is being fine-tuned for life—an opportunity for health imprinting that should not be missed”.
And yet, human mammals ignore the facts. Worldwide, breastfeeding practices are poor, with only 40% of children exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months, and less than 1 child in 2 until 2 years or beyond. In many so-called “developed” countries, breastfeeding older babies (over 2 years) has become rare and is frowned upon. Yet, it is not so long ago that all human babies depended entirely on breastfeeding for their survival, health, and development.
Breastfeeding influences children’s development
The longer-term effects of breastfeeding and the benefits of breastfeeding older children deserve far more attention. Whilst many people are skeptical that breastfed babies may become slightly more intelligent adults, the scientific evidence is clear: most studies show a difference in intelligence scores, even if only a few points. The longer the duration of breastfeeding, the higher the score. The Brazilian prospective study, showing that at age 30 breastfed adults had higher incomes and better jobs, grabbed the attention of the media. Whether due to specific components in human milk, mother-child interaction, or both, it cannot be denied that these babies seem to develop slightly differently, with life-long consequences.
Mental health professionals may not be surprised. Bowlby’s attachment theory, developed in the 50s, highlighted the importance of the presence of a key attachment figure in the first few years– with long-lasting consequences on behaviour and how children and later adults attach to other human beings. Babies breastfed for as long as needed benefit from the regular presence of and interaction with their mother, favouring higher chances of secure attachment and improved development. Breastfeeding stimulates oxytocin, assisting bonding between mother and baby but also acting a stress reliever for the mother.
People are having less and less children and want the best for their offspring. With breastfeeding associated with improved developmental outcomes, which persist later in life—this mammalian behaviour may at last be receiving the greater attention it deserves. Breastfeeding is one of the first early childhood development interventions, offering protection in the form of food security, but also skin to skin contact, warmth, smell, taste, touch, essential physical and emotional interaction and bonding—in one word, the foundations of secure attachment and love. Babies and their mothers need this more than ever in the face of COVID-19.
Breastfeeding can be challenging in today’s world, where protection and support is often lacking at family and community level, in the health system and in the workplace. Baby-milk companies market their products to maximize their profits, often through health professionals whom parents trust for nutrition and health advice, while public health messages are not always getting the message across, concerned about making women feel guiltyProtecting, promoting, and supporting breastfeeding is a collective responsibility. Rather than blaming mothers, governments, public health systems and communities should focus on creating a supportive and protective environment—in which parents choose to breastfeed, are free from commercial pressures and receive the protection, care and support they deserve, including in the workplace. Worldwide progress in protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding is scandalously poor—how many more natural or man-made emergencies will it take to shake us into action? and realize that “Green feeding”—climate action from birth—is an urgent priority.
COVID-19 may provide the wake-up call to focus at long last on breastfeeding—an essential biological, ecological and logical behaviour. With social distancing and “virtual” contacts becoming the norm, providing the best nurturing care to our babies—the future generation—may bring us back to who we are: mammals, living and sharing the earth with others of our kind, suckling and carrying our young, for as long as they need it to develop into secure, intelligent, altruistic and social beings.
Important Note: Breastfeeding safely during the COVID-19 pandemic: “Evidence is overwhelmingly in support of breastfeeding. Skin-to-skin contact and early, exclusive breastfeeding helps your baby to thrive, and there is no reason to discontinue in the wake of this virus”.
Want to learn more about breastfeeding in COVID-19 times? Check out these resources: