World Breastfeeding Week is marked every year from August 1 to 7.
The United Nations-backed event highlights the importance of breastfeeding in tackling malnutrition and understanding inequality and the challenges mothers face around the world.
According to UNICEF, 48 percent of all newborns globally are exclusively breastfed during the first five months of their lives.
Despite the numerous health benefits for both babies and mothers, breastfeeding is not always an option. In the following infographic series, Al Jazeera looks at why breast milk is important and where breastfeeding is most prevalent.
Why is breast milk important?
Breast milk is packed with essential nutrients such as proteins, vitamins, minerals and antibodies uniquely adapted to a baby’s needs.
Breast milk is made up of 87 percent water and keeps infants hydrated, manages their body temperature, lubricates joints and protects organs. It also consists of about 7 percent carbohydrates – mostly lactose, a sugar that provides the baby with energy – and 4 percent fats. The remaining 2 percent is comprised of proteins and other bioactive components, which cannot be found in formula.
The production of milk by the mammary glands is stimulated by hormones. As the pregnancy comes to term, a woman’s body begins to produce the first breast milk, called colostrum, in the initial days after birth.
Colostrum is known as “liquid gold” because of its colour and its benefits to newborns: It is packed with protein, vitamins, minerals and antibodies that are essential to the growth and protection of a newborn.
According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breastfeeding has several health benefits for babies and mothers and can help protect them from illnesses.
For babies, breastfeeding can reduce the risk of:
- Type 1 diabetes
- Severe lower respiratory disease
- Ear infections
- Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
- Gastrointestinal infections
For mothers, breastfeeding can lower the risk of:
- High blood pressure
- Type 2 diabetes
- Ovarian cancer
- Breast cancer
Common problems breastfeeding mothers face
Breastfeeding, however, is not always an option.
Zahra Shah is a 35-year-old mother from Toronto, Canada, who had a difficult time breastfeeding her infant.
“My son didn’t latch no matter how hard I tried. I asked lactation counselors for help, but no matter what, nothing helped,” she said.
Shah was reliant on pumping to feed her child. But things quickly became complicated when everything Shah did had to be managed around her son’s feeding – from working to even running simple errands.
“I had to pump milk out with a breast pump and feed him. Pumping was done at least five to eight times a day depending on how many times he had to be fed,” she said.
Unable to go out as before, Shah’s social interactions were gradually cut off. The isolation weighed heavily on her mental health.
“Scheduled pumping was necessary to make sure milk supply didn’t dry up, but at the same time, being at work, I had limited options for storing milk and ensuring the baby had enough,” she said.
At five months, Zahra shifted her baby over to formula – a move that she saw as her only choice. Still, it was a stressful one because she believed that breastfeeding would have been more beneficial. “He would have learned to suckle – that helps with developing the jaw muscles,” Zahra said.
Rachel, a 31-year-old mother from London, England, told Al Jazeera that breastfeeding has been “a challenging experience”.
“It’s definitely one of the toughest parts of the whole experience of pregnancy, birth, labour,” she said. “Obviously, you feel a huge amount of pressure and guilt too if you don’t know if your baby is feeding.”
Rachel described it as an immense mental and emotional challenge as well as a physical one. “Your body goes through a lot of changes, and you’re adjusting to that because it’s another discomfort that you feel,” she said.
Hareem Sumbul, a certified lactation counsellor in Lahore, Pakistan, said breastfeeding stimulates the production of oxytocin, a “happiness hormone” that helps calm mothers.
But “in case breastfeeding does not go as planned or if there are any hurdles in breastfeeding which cause stress, it can even contribute to kicking off postpartum depression,” she said.
Breastfeeding rates around the globe
According to data collected by UNICEF, South Asian countries have the highest exclusive breastfeeding rates for babies up to five months old at 61 percent.
At 55 percent, East and Southern Africa have the second-highest breastfeeding rates, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean (43 percent), Eastern Europe and Central Asia (42 percent), and West and Central Africa (38 percent).
One in three newborns (32 percent) in the Middle East and North Africa are exclusively breastfed.
A retired gynaecologist who worked in Saudi Arabia for more than a decade and requested not to be named told Al Jazeera that most Saudi mothers tend to be young and have hired help to take care of the infant.
“In private hospitals, there used to be ready-made formula for children that was given freely,” she said. “Once the child is put on the formula in the bottle, there are lesser chances the child will take to suckling.”
Globally, North America has the lowest rate of exclusive breastfeeding for babies within the first five months of their lives with just over 26 percent in 2021.
Christina Tenorio, a doula and certified lactation specialist from the Pasadena Breastfeeding Center in the US state of California, said parents tend to switch to formula mainly because breastfeeding becomes difficult.
“There are also parents who choose to formula feed or supplement because they have to return to work or they do not have the ability to exclusively breastfeed,” she said. “They may have other children or have other responsibilities that don’t allow for exclusive breastfeeding.”
“We definitely see a divide and the discrepancies and disparities in women of colour and the ability to pay. Many parents have to have two-income households, and many moms return to work in six to eight weeks. This will definitely decrease the longevity of breastfeeding.”