Regional consultation to protect, promote and support breastfeeding with a focus on Baby Friendly Hospital practices

4-6 December 2017, New Delhi, India

Distinguished participants, ladies and gentlemen,

Breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways for a mother to ensure her child’s health and survival.

Breast milk is recognized to be the best form of nutrition for infants, and provides positive health benefits throughout the life-course. Those benefits include increased performance and productivity, and reduced risk of a range of non-communicable diseases. Importantly, breastfeeding also provides positive health benefits for the mother, including reduced risk of ovarian and breast cancer.

Beyond breastfeeding’s impact on individual children, it also holds great potential as a tool to drive down newborn and child mortality. If every child was breastfed within an hour of birth, was exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life, and continued to be breastfed up to the age of two years, the lives of nearly one million children would be saved each year.

For this reason, breastfeeding plays a central role in the 2030 sustainable development agenda and is linked to goals beyond health and nutrition, including poverty, education and sustainable consumption. This is reflected in programming at the highest level, with recent global initiatives such as the UN Secretary-General’s ‘Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health’, ‘A Promise Renewed - Call to Action for Child Survival’, and ‘Every Newborn Action Plan’ all emphasizing the importance of breastfeeding.

These initiatives build on the momentum established in 2012, when Member States endorsed World Health Assembly Resolution 65.6 on the Comprehensive Implementation Plan on Maternal, Infant and Young Child Nutrition. As one of the six global nutrition targets for 2025, the Comprehensive Plan emphasizes the need to increase the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the first 6 months of life to at least 50%.

I am pleased to note that our Region has the highest exclusive breastfeeding rates globally. Though rates vary widely across countries, approximately 48% of infants in our Region are exclusively breastfed in the first 6 months of life. Nevertheless, that still leaves half of all children in the Region missing out on the benefits of breastfeeding, meaning there is significant scope for further gains.

Distinguished participants,

While breastfeeding is a natural act, it is also a learned behavior. Mothers and caregivers require active support to help them start and sustain breastfeeding. This support should consist of community-based strategies such as the dissemination of positive messaging; the strengthening of regulatory policy processes such as the International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes; and the enactment of maternity protection laws that protect, promote and support breastfeeding.

Importantly, it should also consist of strengthening health facility-based programmes such as the WHO- and UNICEF-developed Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative – or BFHI. Across the Region, the BFHI’s coverage is, at present, low, with the initiative’s momentum slowing in recent years. Urgent action is needed to increase its uptake and better integrate breastfeeding support in maternity and other health facilities.

It is encouraging to note that Member States across the Region have recognized the problem and requested support. To this end we have organized this consultation and look very much forward to supporting your efforts. Though coming deliberations will focus on how best to implement the BFHI, they will go beyond it – as they must – and address some of the community-based and legislative initiatives mentioned earlier.

Distinguished participants,

The timing of this consultation could not be more appropriate. As you know, new guidance on the ten steps to breastfeeding has just been published. The operational guidance on the Revised Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative has meanwhile been updated and enhanced, while new guidance on the inappropriate marketing of foods to young children has also been published and disseminated.

I welcome the active participation at this consultation of UNICEF, Alive and Thrive, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, IBFAN and the Thai Breastfeeding Centre Foundation, alongside other regional experts. Indeed, I look forward to your support to Member States in this vitally important area of newborn and child health.

I take this opportunity to urge representatives of Member State to make full use of the rich information and technical updates that will be provided throughout this consultation, and very much encourage them to share their experiences and lessons learned with the group.

I likewise urge partners to take note of the challenges and successes of our Member States, and to work with them to help give children across the Region the best start to life by protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding.

I wish the consultation every success.

Thank you.