World Breastfeeding Week is an annual celebration held during the first week in August in more than 120 countries. The celebration aims to raise awareness about the health and economic benefits of breastfeeding.
One goal of this year’s event is to encourage governments to support workplace policies that help mothers breastfeed their babies for as long as possible. Another goal is to confirm that breastfeeding is normal and natural.
In 2016 The Lancet published a series on breastfeeding. The Lancet claimed that “deaths of 823,000 children and 20,000 mothers each year could be averted through universal breastfeeding, along with economic savings of US$300 billion.”
The medical journal also reported in 2016 that the United Kingdom had the lowest rate of breastfeeding in the world. In that country, only 1 in 200 mothers breastfeed their babies until the children are 1 year old. That is only about 0.5 percent.
Carmel Lloyd is with Royal College of Midwives in the U.K. She says that in the U.K. many people do not accept breastfeeding. Or, as she says, breastfeeding is frowned upon.
"Well I think it is about, sort of, like normalizing it. I think it's still very much from, you know, some aspects of society very much frowned upon."
In the U.S., 27 percent of mothers were still breastfeeding after one year. The number is 35 percent in Norway and 44 percent in Mexico.
The Lancet reported that breastfeeding rates are much higher in much of the developing world: nearly 100% in Senegal, Gambia and Malawi.
Many doctors recommend that babies be breastfed because the milk and closeness to the mother provide health benefits for newborns.
Experts say breastfeeding allows a mother to share her immune protection with her baby. In countries with poor water quality especially, breastfeeding protects a newborn from dangerous infections.
Breastfeeding might benefit not just the child. In recent years, researchers have also been studying the health benefits of breastfeeding for the mother.
A new study found that women who breastfed may have lowered their risk of heart disease or stroke by an average of 10 percent when they became older.
The study is a collaboration between researchers at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences at Peking University and the University of Oxford. They studied data on nearly 290,000 women. The average age of these women was 51.
The researchers found that women who breastfed had a 9 percent lower risk of heart disease and an 8 percent decreased risk of stroke. These percentages are in comparison to women who had never breastfed.
The benefit of breastfeeding was even greater for women who nursed their babies for two years or more. Their heart disease risk was 18 percent lower and the risk of stroke 17 percent less than for those women who did not breastfeed.
Cardiologist Nieca Goldberg suggests the cardiovascular benefits may be related to the release of a hormone during breastfeeding. That hormone is oxytocin.
Oxytocin is important because it tells a pregnant woman’s body to start contractions when it's time for her baby to be born. Oxytocin also tells her body to create milk to feed the child.
Goldberg, who was not involved in the study, explains.
"Oxytocin is a hormone that helps the flexibility of our blood vessels. And flexible blood vessels are resistant to the build-up of plaque or the cholesterol in the walls of the arteries."
The researchers published their findings in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
Goldberg, a medical director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health in New York City, points out a possible problem with the study.
It was observational, she says. In other words, it used information provided by the mothers many years after they gave birth. Goldberg adds the findings do not prove a clear cause and effect relationship between breastfeeding and heart disease.
She says a different type of study is needed. She says health experts need to compare women who breastfeed directly with a control group of those who don't. In this way, they can perhaps confirm long-term heart healthy benefits that come from breastfeeding.
In addition, all the reported health benefits for both the mother and baby may give some women who can’t or won’t breastfeed pressure or feelings of guilt. Rebecca Branch, a mother, agrees.
"There can be a lot of pressure, you are made to feel quite a lot of pressure to breastfeed and if for some reason you can't or don't want to, I think probably ... you know, that can be a bit ... there can be some negative responses around that."
Whether mothers breastfeed or not, cardiologist Nieca Goldberg advises that women can protect themselves from heart disease in other ways, too.
"For those women who don't choose to breastfeed, there are other things they can do to prevent heart disease. And that's certainly by exercising -- something as simple as taking a walk -- and eating a healthy diet that's rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat proteins."