WASHINGTON, Jan. 29 (UPI) -- Programs supporting breastfeeding can prevent up to 820,000 child deaths and add more than $300 billion dollars per year to the global economy through savings on healthcare, according to a series of recent studies.
Calling breast milk "liquid gold," researchers say the increase in health of children and adults, and savings associated with exclusively feeding breast milk to infants, described in a series of studies published in The Lancet overwhelming evidence governments around the world should do more to promote breastfeeding.
Although about 80 percent of newborns receive some breast milk, just 35.7 percent of children globally are breastfed exclusively from birth to 6 months, with poorer countries ahead of richer ones.
A range of significant reasons for women not breastfeeding exist, some women have trouble or can't breastfeed, while others have limited maternal leave or other life requirements that make it difficult, however researchers and doctors say there is room for improvement where these impediments don't exist.
"The success or failure of breastfeeding should not be seen solely as the responsibility of the woman," Dr. Nigel Rollins, a researcher at the World Health Organization, told The Guardian. "Her ability to breastfeed is very much shaped by the support and the environment in which she lives. There is a broader responsibility of governments and society to support women through policies and programs in the community."
According to one study, "Breastfeeding in the 21st century: epidemiology, mechanisms, and lifelong effect," researchers found 820,000 fewer children, 87 percent of whom are infants under 6 months, would die if they were breastfed. They also found half of diarrhea episodes and one-third of respiratory infections in children would be prevented.
In addition, women's risk of developing invasive breast cancer or ovarian cancer would go down, and breastfeeding could prevent 20,000 breast cancer deaths.
Researchers found several reasons breastfeeding rates are so low in some countries -- limited or no maternity leave, making it more likely women will not breastfeed or stop early, gaps in knowledge among healthcare providers, and lack of strong support systems among family and community.
"We want to encourage breastfeeding but I've also seen patients in tears who can't do it," Dr. Jennifer Wu, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Lenox Hill Hospital, told CBS News. "This article makes it seem like developed countries, rich women, they should all be breastfeeding. But for working women, it's harder for them to breastfeed."
Wu pointed to the restrictions of specific jobs, as well as the standard six-week maternity leave in the United States, as making it more difficult for women to directly breastfeed, or even pump during breaks at work.
"There are wonderful benefits to it. It goes a long way toward preventing childhood illness, but in many of the developed countries, women are a large part of workforce," she said, adding "Formula is not dangerous. It's a lifesaver for women who can't breastfeed and don't have enough milk."
Medical and practical matters aside, researchers say marketing efforts by formula and breast milk replacement companies plays a role in diminishing the unique benefits of breastfeeding. The market value of the industry will reach $70.9 billion by 2019, they report in a study. This continues huge growth from $2 billion in 1987 to about $40 billion in 2013.
Increasing breastfeeding rates to 90 percent in the United States, China, and Brazil, and to 45 percent in the United Kingdom, could save at least $2.45 billion in the United States, $29.5 million in the United Kingdom, $223.6 million in China, and $6 million in Brazil in child healthcare costs, researchers found.
"Anyone who has breastfed knows it is 'liquid gold,' and the scientific evidence for the many incredible benefits of breastfeeding are stronger today than ever," Katie Taylor, deputy assistant administrator for global health at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said in a press release. "It is ready to use and perfectly customized for a child's nutritional needs and immune system. We do not need to spur technological innovations, enhance food production value chains, or incentivize end users. It doesn't have to be manufactured by donors or transported. What we need is a greater sense of urgency to create and provide support for environments that promote breastfeeding."
The Breastfeeding Series, published by The Lancet, included 28 systematic reviews and meta-analyses of more than 1,300 different studies.