How breastfeeding helps moms, babies and entire communities (and the role tech plays)

Last year the medical journal Lancet published some eye-opening statistics about breastfeeding. Among them: Every year, 800,000 children’s lives could be saved with increased breastfeeding rates. What's more, the estimated global economic costs of lower cognitive ability associated with not breastfeeding amount to about $300 billion annually. As this is World Breastfeeding Week, we wanted to highlight work being done to promote breastfeeding. – Liz Enbysk


Alive & Thrive is an initiative to save lives, prevent illness and contribute to healthy growth and development through improved maternal nutrition, breastfeeding and complementary feeding practices. It is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the governments of Canada and Ireland.

And in fact Alive & Thrive just announced an additional five-year, $41 million investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to continue its work around the world.

The money will help build on the programs the nonprofit has engaged in over the past nine years which have shown improvements in breastfeeding and complementary feeding practices can be achieved at a large scale in a relatively short period of time.

Between 2009 and 2014, rates of exclusive breastfeeding increased in Alive & Thrive program areas in all three original countries; the rate tripled to 57% in Viet Nam and reached more than 80% in Bangladesh and Ethiopia, according to the nonprofit. 

The gold standard
“As a scientist, I am awed by the remarkable lifesaving benefits of breastfeeding,” said Susan Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “From nutrition to immunization, it is the gold standard for improving a child’s health and development. If we can make the practice universal, the results will be startling. That’s why we’re excited to continue our partnership with Alive & Thrive -- and give millions more children the best possible start in life.”

Alive & Thrive points out that beyond the lifesaving benefits of breastfeeding, there are also economic advantages -- calling breastfeeding "one of the best investments any country can make to improve child survival, boost cognitive development and increase economic growth." It points to recent reports that suggest every $1 invested in breastfeeding generates $35 in economic returns.

Action Against Hunger is another nonprofit promoting the benefits of breastfeeding.

"The rates of breastfeeding vary a great deal depending on the country and context," Angeline Grant, Action Against Hunger’s Senior Health and Nutrition Advisor, said in a recent interview. "Although breastfeeding is a cultural norm in many of the areas where Action Against Hunger works, mothers and caregivers often have little access to health care or information about how to feed babies and young children to meet their unique nutritional needs to ensure proper growth and development."

Grant said poor breastfeeding and inadequate feeding practices are a major cause of illness and death among infants and young children in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

A role for technology
The headline on a recent BBC news piece asks: Do mums really need breastfeeding help from technology?  It quotes a California mother who used the Baby Connect app to record breastfeeds, her baby's naps and the like.

"The newborn days are such a blur - you're in survival mode - so having something to look back to was essential," she told BBC.

And she's not alone. The BBC notes there are scores of breastfeeding tracking and advice apps available today in a market forecast to grow from $36 million in 2015 to nearly $250 million by 2020, according to MarketsandMarkets.

Yet breastfeeding isn't always easy. In fact, Melinda Gates wrote about how difficult breastfeeding can be in a recent Refinery29.com post.

"For my part," she wrote, "I’d more or less imagined that breastfeeding would look like one of those Mary Cassatt paintings I’ve always loved -- the ones that show a happily feeding child and a lovingly mesmerized mother, all of it tender, peaceful, and rendered in soft pastels. The reality, of course, was a lot messier."

Knowing how much milk a breastfed baby is getting is one challenge – and one reason many moms stop breastfeeding earlier than recommended.

Momsense is one solution to that problem. The sensor technology detects and analyzes baby swallows by applying sophisticated signal and pattern recognition techniques and reports results on a smartphone app.

Breast pumps are also a challenge for many women. Breast pump maker Medela and telemedicine service Pacify Health announced 24/7LC last month, a new membership service that offers moms an instant video connection to a professional lactation consultant through a smartphone anytime they need it.

Working moms have challenges with breastfeeding, but leave it to the tech industry to come up with a solution. Read why IBM Mother’s Rooms make some moms just plain jealous.


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This article is from the Council's Compassionate Cities initiative which highlights how city leaders and other stakeholders can leverage smart technologies to end suffering in their communities and give all citizens a route out of poverty. Click the Compassionate Cities box on our registration page to receive our weekly newsletter.

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