World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated from 2 to 8 August, and serves to remind us that the tradition of breastfeeding constitutes a shared responsibility where families, employers and society as a whole all have a role to play. From the perspective of public health, consistency with regard to breastfeeding helps establish a system that functions in both regular and crisis situations.
“Until now, we have focused on the benefits of breastfeeding for mothers and babies and recognised Estonia as a society that has created opportunities for breastfeeding in public spaces and promoted positivity. The state with its laws and benefits also helps ensure mothers are able to breastfeed their babies for as long as necessary and provide them with the intimacy they need to develop,” says Head Midwife of the Maternity Counselling Centre of East Tallinn Central Hospital Women’s Clinic Silja Staalfeldt-Rahumägi.
The heatwaves we have witnessed this year and the global warming that contributes to these have highlighted another important aspect related to breastfeeding, one that may seem surprising at first. Namely, the organisers of World Breastfeeding Week point out that breastfeeding is more environmentally friendly than using a breast milk substitute.
6 months of breastfeeding saves 95-153 kg of CO2 per infant
Research into breastfeeding in relation to climate changes is a new phenomenon. It is clear that while breastfeeding requires some water and natural resources from land, it generates no carbon emissions and little to no waste. Breastfeeding also helps keep families in good health, thus likely contributing to more economic use of resources by mankind in the future.
According to one recent study, breastfeeding for six consecutive months helps save 95 to 153 kg of CO2 per infant compared to using a breast milk substitute. This means that breastfeeding a baby for 6 months saves the equivalent amount of carbon as would be generated by driving a regular car for 400 to 600 km, i.e. about one tank full of fossil fuel*. “This adds up to a remarkable number when we consider all the children born in Estonia,” says Silja Staalfeldt-Rahumägi.
When we ask ourselves what increases the ecological footprint of breast milk substitute, we have to consider a number of contributing factors. The estimated ecological footprint of milk powder is about 4,700 litres of water per one kilo of milk powder. In addition, the recipe calls for various ingredients, minerals and vitamins. We also have to take into account the distance covered to transport raw material to factories and end-products to consumers all over the world. Finally, we have to consider related household costs: sterilisation of bottles, preparation of mixture and waste produced by packaging.
Supporting women is vital
Highlighting the role of breastfeeding in environmental protection should not be targeted at mothers. Instead, we should be addressing people with the authority to make changes. All activities that help counsel new mothers on starting breastfeeding, e.g. access to breastfeeding counselling in maternity hospitals and during the first weeks after leaving the hospital, are important to increase the number of breastfeeding mothers. The existence of mother and child rooms in public areas continues to be important, as well as benefits provided by employers and the state that allow mothers of young children to better combine their work and family life to breastfeed for the first months.
“When we talk to new mothers and families about the usefulness of breastfeeding, we do this in the interest of the development of the child and the wellbeing of the mother and the child. Breast milk is the most suitable and healthy food for a baby during their first months of life because the constitution of breast milk changes as the baby grows and provides them with all the nutrients they need and prevents dehydration even during hot summer days. Breast milk also has a psychological and social effect on the relationship between a mother and her child and protects infants in terms of immunology,” says Head Midwife of the Maternity Counselling Centre Silja Staalfeldt-Rahumägi.