Breastfeeding is the biologically normal way to feed an infant and is important for baby’s optimal growth, development and health. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF in the Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding (WHO 2003) recommend that babies be exclusively breastfed from birth to 6 months and then partially breastfed up to 2 years and beyond.

The New Zealand Ministry of Health’s Food and Nutrition Guidelines for Healthy Infants and Toddlers (Aged 0-2) (2008) is an excellent source of information on the importance of breastfeeding, conditions affecting breastfeeding, cup feeding and storing and using expressed breast milk. It also contains a good summary of the key points for breastfeeding.

Benefits for Babies

Apart from providing all the essential nutrients needed for healthy growth and development, breastfeeding gives numerous other benefits to a baby. It contains many functional components that protect the baby from infection and immune related diseases. It assists the emotional bond between mother and child and contributes to the emotional development of the infant.
Breastfeeding has been associated with a decrease in the incidence and severity of childhood infectious diseases, infant mortality and hospitalisation and the risk of chronic disease for infants. The long term protective effect of breastfeeding seems to be related to the duration and type of breastfeeding the baby receives.

The complex, many and varied benefits of breastfeeding including nutritional, immunological, social and economic cannot be replicated by any infant formula product.

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Benefits for Mothers and the Community

As well as benefits to the infant, breastfeeding also confers many benefits to the mother and the community as a whole. Breastfeeding can have a 98 percent contraceptive effect in the first six months after the infant’s birth, assists in postpartum weight control and reduces the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and osteoporosis. The protective effects of breastfeeding in infancy are associated with a reduced risk of obesity and chronic disease in later life resulting in reduced costs to the community for hospitalization and lost productivity.

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Breastfeeding Rates in Australia and New Zealand

The majority of Australian and New Zealand mothers initiate breastfeeding after the birth of their baby. However despite strong evidence concerning the benefits of breastfeeding the rates remain suboptimal and are well below the levels recommended by the WHO.

In 2007 the Australian House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health and Ageing conducted a parliamentary inquiry into the health benefits of breastfeeding. It found that there were many and complex factors that contributed to the uptake, rate and duration of breastfeeding. The committee noted “that most mothers are at some point along this spectrum and it is vital that all mothers are supported”. The Best Start – Report on the inquiry into the health benefits of breastfeeding presents an overview of the challenges to breastfeeding in Australia.

The Role of Government

Promoting, supporting and protecting breastfeeding is an important task for government and other stake holders interested in infant health and wellbeing. In Australia and New Zealand there are a number of polices and strategies that recognise this role and provide a framework and direction for the organisation and practice of infant and maternal health services.
Both the Australian and New Zealand governments have recently developed breastfeeding strategies. In 2009 the National Breastfeeding Advisory Committee of New Zealand presented its National Strategic Plan of Action for Breastfeeding 2008-2012: National Breastfeeding Advisory Committee of New Zealand’s Advice to the Director General of Health. The Australian National Breastfeeding Strategy 2010-2015 was endorsed by the Australian Health Ministers’ Conference on 13 November 2009. Its development was led by the Commonwealth Government in consultation with States and Territories and key stakeholders. In addition, the state government jurisdictions of South Australia, New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania have all developed strategies, guidelines or provided a key focus for breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding Support

The Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) is Australia’s peak organisation interested in the promotion and protection of breastfeeding. It was established in 1964 and provides support and encouragement for women to breastfeed their babies and raises community awareness of the importance of breastfeeding for infant and maternal health.

There is also comprehensive information about the benefits of breastfeeding, how to breastfeed, the stages of breastfeeding and where to get help and support on the New Zealand Ministry of Health’s Breastfeeding Homepage.

The Infant Nutrition Council has a Breastfeeding Policy and is committed to promoting the value of breastfeeding and improving breastfeeding rates by proactively supporting the protection and promotion of breastfeeding.