Latin America has a breast feeding problem. But before getting into the details, let me note that August 1-7, 2015 is World Breastfeeding Week. The line-up of sponsors is impressive. This annual event is coordinated by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), a global network of organizations and individuals that promote breastfeeding worldwide. Partners in this effort include WHO/UNICEF, the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (ABM), International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), La Leche League International, among others. Why is it important to encourage breastfeeding?
Exclusive breastfeeding is the healthiest, cheapest, and most readily available option for babies. Whether children are well nourished from day one can make a difference in their lives. And nothing is more nourishing than mother’s milk. Global public health organizations recommend starting breastfeeding within an hour of birth and exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of life (WHO 2015). Exclusive breastfeeding in the first months of life has been associated with reduced child mortality and improved child outcomes, although establishing causation is usually complicated. Breastfeeding may also strengthen the bond between mother and child (Papp 2014).
But breastfeeding is far from universal. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the differences across countries in the proportion of children who are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life are large (see Table 1). In 10 out of 22 countries, the proportion of children exclusively breastfed is between 25 and 40 percent. However, exclusive breastfeeding rates are substantially higher in some countries, including Bolivia (60 percent), Peru (67 percent), and Chile (82 percent), and are very low in others, including the Dominican Republic (7 percent) and Suriname (3 percent). Rates of exclusive breastfeeding of children 6 months of age or younger in Brazil (39 percent), continue to be almost 30 percentage points below those found in Peru, and Chile, although they are substantially higher than those in Mexico (14 percent).
In some countries, socioeconomic factors may play a role. In Bolivia and Peru, women in the first (poorest) quintile exclusively breastfeed their children for more than twice as long as women in the fifth (richest) quintile. In Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti, on the other hand, there are no clear socioeconomic gradients in the duration of breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding rates between 2000 and 2012 have changed for some countries but not always in the right direction. The average duration of exclusive breastfeeding increased substantially in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru, but not in the Dominican Republic. In Mexico, declining breastfeeding rates have been a source of concern, dropping from about 29 percent in the late 1980s to 21 percent in 2006, and to 14 percent in 2012—one of the lowest rates in the region (Pérez-Escamilla and others 2012; Colchero and others 2015).
While the reasons for the vast differences across countries in breastfeeding rates are not well understood, a number of interventions have been shown to be effective in increasing breastfeeding rates in some settings, both inside and outside the region. Some of these strategies are discussed in the 2015 edition of the IDB’s flagship series, Development in the Americas, which is entitled The Early Years: Child Well-being and the Role of Public Policy. Click here to receive updates on this upcoming book and a free PDF upon publication.