PARIS – Breast-feeding more babies for longer could save the global economy some $300 billion in a single year, simply by yielding smarter and higher-earning offspring, researchers said Friday.
It would also prevent more than 800,000 child deaths, and about 20,000 breast cancer deaths every year.
“Breast-feeding saves lives and money in all countries, rich and poor alike,” said Cesar Victora from the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil, one of the authors of a research series published by The Lancet medical journal.
“There is a widespread misconception that the benefits of breast-feeding only relate to poor countries. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said in a statement.
The findings were based on analysis of 28 scientific reviews and meta-analyses that looked at the proven health and economic benefits of breast-feeding.
The authors said this was the largest and most detailed analysis of its kind ever done.
It concluded that breast-feeding led to a “dramatic” improvement in life expectancy.
In high-income countries, it reduced the risk of sudden infant deaths by more than a third.
In low- and middle-income countries, it could prevent about half of diarrhea episodes and one-third of respiratory infections.
Altogether, about 800,000 children’s lives could be saved every year — the equivalent of about 13 percent of all deaths in children under two.
“It also increases intelligence,” said the statement.
“Modelling conducted for the series estimates that global economic losses of lower cognition from not breast-feeding reached a staggering $302 billion in 2012.”
This was about 0.5 percent of the world’s gross national income.
Last year, a study in The Lancet Global Health journal said breast-feeding led to increased adult intelligence, longer schooling and higher adult earnings, regardless of family background.
That research had tracked the development of 3,500 people in Brazil over 30 years from birth.
The new series said boosting breast-feeding rates for children under six months to 90 percent in the United States, China and Brazil, and to 45 percent in Britain, would dramatically cut treatment costs of common childhood illnesses such as pneumonia, diarrhea and asthma.
In the U.S., the saving would be $2.45 billion, in Britain $29.5 million, in China $223.6 million and in Brazil $6 million.
For women, longer breast-feeding has been shown to reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, the study authors said, and estimated that some 20,000 women’s deaths could be prevented per year.
Yet 1 in 5 children in high-income countries are breast-fed to 12 months, and one in three in low- and middle-income countries are exclusively breast-fed for the first six months of their lives.
In Britain, about 1 percent of children are breast-fed until the age of 1, in Ireland about 2 percent and in Denmark 3 percent — among the lowest rates in the world.
Breast-feeding is much more common in poor countries.
Breast milk is free, nutritious and protective against disease, but not always practical for women who cannot be on call around the clock.
In some societies, it is frowned upon to breast-feed in public.
And in some cases, it can be dangerous — breast-feeding can pass on the virus that causes HIV and leads to AIDS from infected mothers to their children.
“Currently, breast-feeding promotion focuses on encouraging women to breast-feed without providing the necessary economic and social conditions such as supportive health care systems, adequate maternity entitlements and workplace interventions, counseling and education,” said co-author Nigel Rollins from the World Health Organization.
Another problem is “aggressive marketing” of breast milk substitutes — with global sales set to reach $70.6 billion by 2019.
The researchers called for political commitment and financial investment to make it easier for women to breast-feed, and tighter regulation of the breast milk substitute industry.