Breastfeeding across the world in 2022

Baby breastfeeding

As part of World Breastfeeding Week 2022, our Policy and Public Affairs Officer Jennifer O’Mara looks into the levels of lactation around the world, in particular her home country of Ireland, and explores how rates can be increased where possible, given the health benefits for both mother and child.

Despite the evidence on the importance of breastfeeding on breast cancer risk for the mother and on childhood obesity – particularly within the first 1000 days (2.7 years) of a baby’s life – rates both globally and in Europe are still astonishingly low.

In Ireland, my home country, breastfeeding rates have continued to decline. In 2016, breastfeeding rates upon discharge from a maternity hospital stood at 46.3% and by 2019, this figure had dropped to 37.3%.

Ireland has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding both globally and in Europe which was a great surprise to me – the World Health Organization (WHO) World Health Statistics 2013 reported that just 15% of children in Ireland are exclusively breastfeed for the first 6 months of life, compared to a global average of 38% and European of 25%.

This shocked and prompted me to explore where the barriers to breastfeeding are, given that 1-7 August is World Breastfeeding Week, with the theme “Step Up for Breastfeeding: Educate and Support” which seeks to highlight the necessity for protection, promotion, and support of those breastfeeding.

The week promotes the importance of an enabling environment, while acknowledging that some women encounter physiological, practical, emotional, or medical reasons for not being able to breastfeed. Not to dismiss how hard breastfeeding is.

Why are breastfeeding rates so low?

From looking into the situation in Ireland, I found that many mothers – both expecting parents and those already with a young child – fall victim of destructive marketing tactics used by formula milk companies through targeted promotions, marketing techniques and digital media.

Such persuasive marketing tactics can create a barrier to increasing the uptake of breastfeeding and undermine parents’ capabilities when it comes to breastfeeding which are unacceptable. Many of these harmful tactics are a breach of international standards set by UNICEF and WHO to protect women from such marketing practices through introducing policies and legislation.

Most high-income countries have adopted legislation or regulations to support breastfeeding, yet, disappointingly, many do not take into consideration the availability and accessibility of breastfeeding in public and workspaces. While some countries do have legislation in place, implementation and enforcement can often be weak and exploited.

Exploitation of marketing practices

WHO recently published two reports on digital marketing restrictions for breastmilk substitutes highlighting how companies have focused their activities online and the lack of government action.

The first report details marketing techniques used by the formula milk industry, many of which are unethical, misleading, and not grounded in scientific evidence. Some of these techniques include promotions, sponsored and targeted advertisements when thinking about breastfeeding or not. This type of scaremongering can stimulate fear, apprehension, and confusion particularly to new parents surrounding breastfeeding.

The second report covers the digital space and persuasive techniques used to promote infant formula through websites, social media, and email communication to name a few. These techniques use highly targeted algorithms and cross promotional techniques across various digital platforms.

It was interesting to learn that formula milk companies reach 3x as many people through social media than non-commercial accounts on breastfeeding. There are roughly 90 social media posts a day by formula milk companies reaching 229 million users.

Promoting breastfeeding and the marketing of formula milk substitutes is something we have spoken about at the highest level of public health at WHO. WCRF International welcomes plans for WHO to introduce new guidance on digital marketing restrictions for breastmilk substitutes.

Driving action

To address the ongoing issues surrounding the marketing of formula milk, WHO and UNICEF are calling out to governments and health workers to comply with international standards. Some of these include monitoring and enforcing laws on the prevention and promotion of formula milk, creating policies and programmes in support of breastfeeding, and prohibiting health workers from engaging in sponsorship with formula milk companies.

We know globally, breastfeeding rates are low, so in the first guidance report, WHO surveyed 8,500 parents, pregnant women and health workers on their exposure to formula milk marketing in a range of countries such as China, Mexico and the United Kingdom.

Such exposures reached 84% of women in the United Kingdom and 97% in China, impacting the likelihood of using formula milk. These results might explain the low uptake rates of breastfeeding in Ireland.

Green shoots of progress?

Good progress has been made at an international level on Baby-Friendly Hospitals and the Baby-Friendly Community Initiative. The Food and Agriculture Organization has reported positive signs of breastfeeding rates increasing globally, with nearly 44% of infants under six months of age being exclusively breastfed in 2020. We hope the new guidance from WHO will encourage governments to take even further action to promote breastfeeding.

World Breastfeeding Week is an opportunity to showcase the positive benefits of breastfeeding (where possible) and drive the noise away from the harmful marketing tactics used by the formula industry. Let’s hope that message is heard loud and clear globally and in Ireland  so women are supported to breastfeed where they can.

> Find out more about World Breastfeeding Week

> Read our blog: why breastfeeding is like learning to drive, only harder

> Why breastfeeding is one of our Cancer Prevention Recommendations