The World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) is a global network of individuals
& organisations concerned with the protection, promotion & support of breastfeeding worldwide.
WABA action is based on the Innocenti Declaration, the Ten Links for Nurturing the Future and the
Global Strategy for Infant & Young Child Feeding. WABA is in consultative status with UNICEF & an NGO
in Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC).
WABA Activity Sheet 10

Breastfeeding and Food Security 

Breastfeeding has an important role to play in making food security a reality for the 140 million babies born every year. Food security means having enough food to maintain a healthy and productive life today -- and in the future. Communities enjoy food security when all individuals in all households have access to food -- adequate in quantity and quality, affordable, acceptable, appropriate and readily available from local sources on a continuing basis. 

Breastfeeding provides total food security for infants. There is no more readily available, affordable and nutritious food source than breastmilk, a complete food for infants up to six months of age. Breastfeeding continues to provide the growing child with essential nutrients and energy, helping to prevent malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies in the second year of life and beyond, along with other foods. Breastmilk is the first food for babies, but breastfeeding also benefits women, families, communities, and our planet. 

Imagine a menu that changes to adapt to its surroundings. Is there a new infectious agent in baby's surroundings? Breastmilk will provide antibodies to protect the baby. Breastmilk is like a menu that changes from feed to feed to meet your child's needs. For example, preterm milk is specially suited to meet the needs of preterm infants and changes in composition as infants grow. 

Breastmilk is the first food for babies, but breastfeeding also benefits women, families, communities, and our planet. 

Breastmilk: First food 

Benefits for Babies 

Breastmilk gives growing children nutritious, affordable food and helps protect against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The incidence of diarrhoea may be from 3 to 14 times higher in bottle-fed compared to breastfed children. In addition, breastfed babies produce higher levels of antibodies in response to childhood immunizations. 

  • breastfed babies have a lower risk of acquiring urinary tract infections.

  • breastfeeding helps to prevent atopic disease, including atopic eczema, food allergies, and respiratory allergies -- throughout childhood and adolescence. 

  • premature infants fed breastmilk had higher IQ scores at age seven to eight years than those artificially fed.

The composition of human milk changes during a single feeding and as lactation progresses while formulas remain uniform.  
(Jensen et al, Handbook of Milk Composition, 1995: 836) 

Benefits for Women 

Breastfeeding is a special pleasure for mothers and babies. There are also longterm benefits for breastfeeding mothers: 

  • breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast & ovarian cancers, anemia & osteoporosis. 

  • breastfeeding provides emotional benefits for mothers and children. 

  • women save food preparation time, as well as the time spent caring for sick children. 

  • exclusive breastfeeding enhances birth spacing, giving women more time to recover from childbirth, care for their newborn children and contribute to the food security of their households and communites.

Benefits for Families 

Breastfeeding costs mothers and families very little, while artificial feeding can consume from 20% to 90% of household income, in addition to health costs of caring for sick children. It is not just mothers and babies that benefit from breastfeeding. The cost of just one tin of infant formula could deny the rest of the family nutritious food to keep them healthy. Why sould the baby's siblings suffer when breastmilk, the best food, does not take cash from the family's purse? Babies, their brothers and sisters, and adult relatives all benefit from home grown foods. 

Benefits for Communities  

Breastfeeding is essential to solving the problems of hunger. In most communities, there are households and individuals who do not have enough to eat, and experience hunger on a regular basis. Breastfeeding is important insurance when families face food shortages in an emergency. In North America, children born in low income families are the least likely to be breastfed. When babies in poor households receive breastmilk, they are eating the most affordable, nutritious and accessible meal in town! 

Mothers can feel reassured that they are providing the best for their breastfed children. Mothers who are themselves hungry and cannot afford the food they should be eating every day may find themselves breastfeeding more frequently than mothers who are well fed. But they can feel secure in the knowledge that they are providing the best food mothers and nature have to offer. And the milk will be of good quality. Some communities provide food banks to help feed hungry families. When those food banks distribute occasional free tins of infant formula, they help perpetuate poverty. Mothers receive one tin, lose their own milk supply... and the tin may well be out of date, mislabelled, or dented. 

Why should low income families start their children off at a disadvantage when the best food is available to them? Other food banks view the promotion of breastfeeding as the best way to increase food security and decrease demand on inadequate, unreliable and expensive artificial baby milk. Since breastfed babies have higher IQs, communities will benefit. Healthier mothers and children means lower health care costs for the community. Breastfeeding is the best way to increase child survival. 

"Investments in breastfeeding promotion are among the most cost-effective health intervention available ."   
Orton et. al. 1996:165  

Benefits to the Environment 

We live in a polluted world. Breastfeeding produces no wastes; each breastfeeding mother reduces problems of pollution and waste disposal. With breastfeeding, there is no need to use up land, water, metals, plastics, and fuels, all of which cost money and deplete the environment. Breastfeeding helps to protect our environment. 

Consider the following facts: 

  • If every baby in the U.S. was breastfed, it would save mother earth approximately: 86,000 tonnes of tin plate which would have been used to create 550 million cans; and 1,230 tonnes of paper (providing the tins have paper labels). 

  • Feeding bottles, teats (nipples) and related equipment require plastic, glass, rubber and silicon. In 1987, 4.5 million feeding bottles were sold in Pakistan alone. The number per baby will be even greater in industrialised countries. These "disposables" use up natural resources and add to the problems of garbage disposal. 

  • Water for artificial baby milk, bottles and teats have to be sterlised before use. It takes 200g of wood to boil one litre of water; in one year an artificially fed baby would use up at least an extra 73 kilos of wood. 

  • In the 70's, a public health nurse in Canada deduced that the high levels of lead in a baby came from the lead sodder in electric kettles used to boil water to mix with infant formula.

But what about toxins in breastmilk? 

Breastmilk is threatened by the widespread pollution of our environment. Toxic substances such as PCBs, dioxins, pesticides, phthalates and heavy metals have been found in samples of breastmilk from some women in some places. This should not prevent mothers from breastfeeding for the following reasons: 

  • Numerous studies indicate the benefits of breast-feeding far outweigh the risks of the toxins in the breast-milk. 

  • Toxins are found all through the food chain. Substitutes such as soy milk and cow's milk (and the artificial formulas made with them) are also contaminated. In fact cow's milk accounts for half the human exposure to PCB's and dioxins.

  • Dioxins are produced in the manufacture and disposal of baby milk tins and packaging as well as during transportation. This means that bottle feeding with infant formula will indirectly increase the levels of toxins in the environment. Why do we hear more about contaminated breastmilk than about reducing environmental pollution???

Nutrition through life 

Food Security matters through-out women's lives 

Marie may have health problems as a result of her mother's malnutrition. This may well affect Marie's children's lives in linked food-based cycles of sadness and hidden hunger. 

Conception or prepregnancy  

Young women need to be healthy and well-nourished before they begin their reproductive life, ideally after their own growth is complete in their twenties.Deficiencies in energy, fatty acids and micronutrients may result in low birthweight babies. 


Good nutrition throughout pregnancy leads to healthier babies. Low birth-weight babies face many disadvantages including increased risk of infection and death in the early weeks of life and increased incidence of diseases such as diabetes, stroke and heart disease later in life. Maternal malnutrition is the most common cause of low birth-weight babies. Pregnant women are at risk for nutritional deficiencies, particularly in low income households. 

First Milk - Colostrum - Superfood: Waste not, Want not  

Colostrum, the first milk mothers produce after birth, meets all the nutritional needs of the newborn. It has strong anti-viral properties, contains agents which attack bacteria, strengthens the infant's own immune system and is an important source of Vitamin A. Can you imagine throwing out a food like that!? 

Meeting the needs of breastfeeding mothers  

As the producers of this special food, breastfeeding mothers need a supportive environment, including having their health and nutritional needs met. Breastfeeding mothers need to increase their caloric intake and take care of themselves when they are the source of food and care for their children. 

 "... human lactation is remarkably resis- tant to acute caloric insufficiency and appears only to be compromised by severe or long-term starvation. However, when the maternal diet is inadequate, the mother’s own nutritional status will suffer. There is therefore no reason to modify the traditional view of human lactation as a risk period in which special attention should be given to the maternal diet. " 
Prentice and Prentice, 1988:78 

Both Susan from Vancouver, Canada, and Suchada from Bangkok, Thailand breastfed their daughters for 16 months, introducing complementary foods from the household at six months of age - cereal and vegetables for Susan’s daughter, rice and fish for Suchada’s. Susan wanted to lose weight after her daughter’s birth and so she just drank more liquids than usual in addition to her regular meals, and had a peanut butter sandwich as an extra snack in the afternoon. Suchada ate rice with her family, but ate more vegetables and meat from the side dishes, and drank a special herbal tonic.


Something to chew on: Introducing Solid Foods  

Around six months of age most babies need foods to complement breastmilk. Babies and growing children don’t need expensive processed baby foods. A combination of breastfeeding and family food can provide all the nutrients that children need - an affordably too. Small stomachs require frequent feeding with a variety of foods. Companies that promote expensive processed baby foods contribute to de-skilling women who can make homemade foods that are cheaper and more nutritious. Many companies advertise their products for babies younger than 6 months in violation of the Code for the Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. 

Year two and beyond ... 

The benefits of breastmilk continue after the addition of family foods. Breastmilk is a source of complete protein that complements cereals and other foods. 

Growing up Female In some communities and households, girls are given less to eat than boys. Even in North America where chronic malnutrition is not common, girls are expected to eat less and show less interest and pleasure in eating. 

Micronutrient Deficiencies 

  • The micronutritional benefits of breastfeeding give children hope for a healthy future. 

  • Breastfeeding plays a major role in correcting life threatening deficiencies. Throughout the world, iron, iodine and vitamin A deficiencies plague millions of women and children. National governments, various NGOs, UNICEF and other groups have pledged to end these “hidden hungers” by the year 2000.

Iron Deficiencies 

The most common nutritional problem in the world is anaemia (iron deficiency) affecting mostly women of reproductive age, infants and children. 60% of women worldwide are anaemic. Anaemia results in premature delivery of babies, low birth weight and low iron reserves resulting in sick mothers and sick babies. Although human milk has only a small amount (0.5-1mg/L) of iron, breastfed babies are rarely iron deficient because the iron in breastmilk is the best absorbed of all forms of iron. The iron in infant formula is not as well absorbed by babies. Early introduction and composition of complementary foods impairs the efficiency of iron absorption from breastmilk. Even anaemic mothers produce breastmilk which provides sufficient iron for their babies. 

Iodine Deficiency 

Diseases (IDD) About 1.5 billion people live in iodine deficient environments. Iodine deficiency disorders result in goiters and are the leading cause of preventable mental disabilities in the world today. There is some evidence that IDD contributes to growth retardation. Even mild iodine deficiency has been reported to reduce intelligence quotients by 10-15 points. Iodine deficiency in pregnant women can cause irreversible brain damage to an unborn child. Children born to iodine deficient mothers experience learning difficulties and have delayed psychomotor development. The level of iodine in the mother affects that in the breastmilk: if the mother is iodine deficient, her breastmilk will also be deficient, and so will her child. Making iodised salt easily available benefits everyone, especially mothers and breastfed babies. 

Vitamin A  

Deficiencies Breastmilk is the best source of vitamin A for infants. Vitamin A deficiencies affect as many as 250 million children around the world. Vitamin A is important for the maintenance of good health and disease prevention. Consequences of vitamin A deficiency include increasing seriousness of infections and associated deaths, growth retardation, iron-deficiency anaemia and night blindness. Without breastmilk, newborns can maintain optimal vitamin A nutrition for no more than a few weeks. Vitamin A deficiency is rare among breastfed infants. Even malnourished mother’s breastmilk protects against vitamin A deficiency for the first six months of exclusive breastfeed-ing. However, vitamin A levels in breastmilk are influenced by mother's diet and nutritional status. 

Securing a Healthy Future 

Breastfeeding has been talked about in relation to child health - as a medicine, and in relation to child spacing - as a means of family planning. Preparation for the World Food Summit is a good opportunity to remind governments and NGOs that breastmilk is first and foremost food, the first food for infants. 

Breastfeeding is at the heart of food security, economics, natural resources, sustainability, communities, the environment, and the future of people and the planet. 

In November 1996, the Food and Agriculture Organization hosts the World Food Summit in Rome. WABA and other NGOs have made suggestions concerning breastfeeding and world food security. These include: 

  • Reconceptualising food security so as to begin at the moment of conception

  • Promoting breastfeeding as part of a country’s food security plan

  • Including breastmilk in the calculations of a country’s food supply and its Food Balance Sheet Breastmilk is the only food for millions of babies. 

In the developing world, over 250 million metric tonnes of breastmilk are consumed annually - in the past this important food source has been ignored in the calculation of a nation’s food supply. Breastfeeding is an important part of global food security. 

Recipes for Food Security  

What can you do?  

  • Participate in World Food Day. 

  • Make meeting women’s health and nutrition needs a priority for breastfeeding promotion programmes.

  • Include breastfeeding in school nutrition education curriculum .

  • Exchange recipes for weaning foods

  • Boycott food corporations that put profits ahead of reducing hunger

  • Supply food banks with breastfeeding material and sources of community support for breast-feeding mothers (clinics, mother support groups etc)

  • Encourage hunger campaigns to pay special attention to the micronutrient needs of breastfeeding mothers and babies.


  • All we can Expect, Video (French, English, Spanish). Available from Television Trust for the Environment (TVE) Prince Albert Rd., London NW1 4RZ, United Kingdom. Fax: 44 171 586 4866

  • Email: 
  • Women: the key to food security. A. Quisumbing etal. International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC

  • Breastfeeding: A national Resource for Food Security. Wellstart International, Washington, D.C. International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC


Statements with emphasis on breastfeeding and Convention on the Rights of the Child were adopted in the World Food Summit Draft Plan of Action (Rome, September 1996) 

Commitment 1: 

14 (new d) Give special attention to the interest and needs of the child, particularly the girl child in food security programmes consistent with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

14 (new e) Enhance the special contribution that women can make to ensuring family and child nutrition with due emphasis on the importance of breastfeeding of infants.


This Activity Sheet is part of a series from WABA to assist groups with their activities to protect, promote and support breastfeeding and in particular, to provide action ideas that could be focused on World Breastfeeding Week, August 1-7 of every year. 

This sheet was prepared by Penny Van Esterik (Women & Work Task Force, WABA, York Centre for Health Studies, York University) with funding from Micronutrient Initiatives, Ottawa, Canada. 

Further information can be obtained from:  

WABA Secretariat 
PO Box 1200, 10850  
Penang, Malaysia  
Tel: 60-4-6484 816  
fax: 60-4-6572655  

World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action
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