The Political Economy of Breastfeeding

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The 2023 Lancet Series on Breastfeeding

Fewer than half of all babies (aged 0–36 months) are breastfed as recommended. 

This week The 2023 Lancet Series on Breastfeeding was published. 

The third Series paper examines:

1. The social, political, and economic reasons for the poor rates of breastfeeding, looking at the power of the commercial milk formula (CMF) industry to commodify the feeding of infants and young children; its influence at national and international levels on market policy and the social, environmental and economic costs. 

2. How breastfeeding is undermined by economic policies and systems that ignore the value of unpaid care work by women, including breastfeeding, and by the inadequacy of maternity rights protection across the world, especially for poorer women. 

3.The reasons why health systems often do not provide adequate breastfeeding protection, promotion and support: The gendered and biomedical power systems that deny women-centred and culturally appropriate care; the economic and ideological factors that accept and encourage commercial influence and conflicts of interest and the fiscal and economic policies that leave governments with insufficient funds to adequately protect, promote and support breastfeeding. 

The authors outline six sets of wide-ranging social, political, and economic reforms required to overcome these deeply embedded commercial and structural barriers to breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding rates remain greatly reduced compared with the rates before the intensification of CMF marketing in the mid-20th century. This raises serious concerns for human and planetary health. 

Adopting a political economy approach, the paper looks at the root causes of low worldwide breastfeeding rates to understand why so many women are prevented from making and implementing informed decisions about feeding and caring for infants and young children; why so many policy makers and health care professionals are co-opted by CMF marketing and other commercial forces and why so many countries have not prioritised and implemented policies to protect, promote and support breastfeeding. 

Breastfeeding and the capability to breastfeed are human rights for women and children, including the right to the highest attainable standard of health and nutrition and the right to life.

The political economy research involved the synthesis of diverse data sources of documentary evidence, interviews with participants from multilateral development agencies, national governments, international and national civil society organisations and research institutions. 

For the key messages and recommendations find all three papers in the Series at