Listen to the talking baby: Breastfeeding is a smart idea

A version of this post originally appeared on Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Blog, "Impatient Optimists". Reposted with permission.

Listen to the talking baby: Breastfeeding is a smart idea

As children fare, so do nations. An investment in the well-being, health, and development of children today will be reflected in the health and development of their communities and nations. A smart investment in the future saves lives, saves money, and can be scaled up to reach children, wherever they are.

Breastfeeding is a smart investment.

Nutrition during the 1,000 days of a mother’s pregnancy until her child’s second birthday is a critical window of opportunity to give a child a healthy start at life. And beginning from birth, breastfeeding offers food security for infants and young children everywhere. Evidence shows that improving breastfeeding practices could save the lives of 800,000 children annually, and millions more would benefit from the increased immunity and nutrition breast milk provides.

But breastfeeding is a very personal act between a mother and her child, so how can we as a global community help? We start by listening to mothers, to families, health workers, employers, policymakers — to the array of people that could contribute in some way to supporting breastfeeding mothers — and use that data to understand where the challenges are and where there may be opportunities to encourage a new approach.

The Alive & Thrive project used this people-centered yet comprehensive approach when working to improve infant and young child nutrition, including breastfeeding rates, in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Vietnam.

In Vietnam, research in 2010 indicated that only 20 percent of Vietnamese mothers were breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months. Many women cited the need to return to work soon after giving birth as a major barrier to exclusive breastfeeding, though there were also common misperceptions about whether babies needed water or other foods in addition to breast milk in those earliest months.

To overcome these barriers, the team looked at the data and noted several opportunities — including breastfeeding-enabling policies, the potential to inspire millions of families via mass and social media, and better ways to deliver quality counseling services — all to empower mothers to breastfeed.

In coordination with UNICEF and other partners, Alive & Thrive’s country team engaged local advocates, medical professionals, and health leaders in calls to strengthen policies supporting breastfeeding. In 2012, the Vietnamese government voted to extend paid maternity leave to six months, increasing the time that millions of mothers could take to breastfeed.

To further amplify messages, Alive & Thrive developed The Little Sun campaign in cooperation with the Ministry of Health. The stars of the campaign were talking babies that shared important information on breastfeeding with their mothers—and with audiences across Vietnam.

The talking babies must be saying the right thing because Alive & Thrive’s multi-pronged approach has yielded significant returns. Early results show a dramatic increase in exclusive breastfeeding after just two years of program implementation. In Vietnam, rates tripled in program areas — increasing from 19 to 63 percent. Substantial gains were seen in Bangladesh and Ethiopia as well, where programs and policies were tailored to meet local needs and opportunities.

Alive & Thrive country programs are succeeding in raising exclusive breastfeeding rates in diverse contexts.

Data are now informing the expansion of efforts beyond the initial focus countries. Looking more broadly in Africa and South Asia, Alive & Thrive will support countries in adapting this comprehensive approach to improve breastfeeding rates.

The evidence tells us not only is increasing breastfeeding a vital contributor to health and nutrition, but it is also a smart investment in child health and development and, best of all — we know we can bring it to scale.

At the World Health Assembly in 2012, leaders committed to increase the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of life to 50 percent by 2025. Advocates and policymakers are now calling for the post-2015 framework (which will replace the Millennium Development Goals) to build on this with a target to reach 60 percent by 2030.

We have the data to show that, by listening to mothers and families, understanding the barriers, and taking a comprehensive approach, increasing breastfeeding rates is possible. If we follow this data, we’ll find a path to a stronger and healthier future.

For more information, read a recently published e-magazine that shows the strategy behind Alive & Thrive’s “talking babies” campaign and a TV spot, produced by Alive & Thrive Vietnam, that encourages mothers to give their children only breast milk, not water, for their first six months of life.

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