Breastfeeding can prevent more than 800,000 child deaths, about 20,000 breast cancer deaths every year and could also save the global economy some $300 billion in a single year, simply by yielding smarter and higher-earning offspring, revealed a new study.
"Breastfeeding saves lives and money in all countries, rich and poor alike. There is a widespread misconception that the benefits of breastfeeding only relate to poor countries. Nothing could be further from the truth," 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.
The findings were based on analysis of 28 scientific reviews and meta-analyses that looked at the proven health and economic benefits of breastfeeding.
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 a 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. Modelling conducted for the series estimates that global economic losses of lower cognition from not breastfeeding reached a staggering $302 billion (276 billion euros) in 2012."
This was about half a percent of the world's gross national income.
Last year, a study in The Lancet Global Health Journal said breastfeeding 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 breastfeeding 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 US, 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 breastfeeding 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.
Rates are low
Yet, one in five children in high-income countries are breastfed to 12 months, and one in three in low- and middle-income countries are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their lives.
In Britain, about one percent of children are breastfed until the age of one, in Ireland about two percent and in Denmark three percent -- among the lowest rates in the world.
Breastfeeding 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 breastfeed in public. And in some cases, it can be dangerous -- breastfeeding can pass on the HIV virus that causes AIDS from infected mothers to their children.
"Currently, breastfeeding promotion focuses on encouraging women to breastfeed without providing the necessary economic and social conditions such as supportive healthcare systems, adequate maternity entitlements and workplace interventions, counselling and education," said co-author Nigel Rollins from the World Health Organisation.
Another problem was "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 breastfeed, and tighter regulation of the breast milk substitute industry.