Mother’s Milk: What Can Funders Do For Breastfeeding Week?

International Breastfeeding Week is August 1-7, so we’d like to take the opportunity here at Philanthropy Women to emphasize the importance of breastfeeding to human health, and to ask women givers to do more to support breastfeeding initiatives. If you want to know my opinion, breastfeeding should be a celebrated activity. What a different world it would be if, every time a woman breastfed in public, people around her paused and admired what is one of the miracles of human health.

Breastfeeding memes are popular on social media, a sign of the public’s ongoing interest in the topic. What if breastfeeding support became more popular among funders?

But instead, we shame women who breastfeed in public. We eye them with disgust. If women post pictures of themselves breastfeeding, they get trolled online. Recently, Aliya Shagieva, the youngest daughter of the president of Kyrgyztan, posted a picture of herself breastfeeding her baby on Instagram, with the caption, “I will feed my child whenever and wherever he needs to be fed.”  She was accused of immoral behavior, and trolled until she took the picture down.

So what is philanthropy doing about this problem? Right now, some big funders are on the scene like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but philanthropy could definitely do more to support breastfeeding.

Where Does Breastfeeding Support Come From?

The U.S. government does some of the most comprehensive grantmaking for breastfeeding. In 2016, the U.S. Government granted the CDC  $8,000,000 for the purpose of supporting hospitals in promoting breastfeeding.

In the realm of private foundation funding for initiatives in the U.S., W.K. Kellogg is probably the reigning champion of grantmaking for lactation support and education. According to the foundation’s grants database, they have made 148 grants since 2008 that in some way involve supporting breastfeeding.

Globally, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has continually provided large grants to developing countries to support breastfeeding. Most recently, the Gates Foundation awarded $41,271,935 to FHI Solutions to support policies and interventions that improve breastfeeding and maternal nutrition in all of the global locations where the foundation does work.

But philanthropy could do more. Far too many women still do not breastfeed, due to a whole range of social and gender norm deterrants.

That’s why, during Breastfeeding Awareness week, we agree with the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights which recently made this statement: “States should do more to support and protect breastfeeding, and end inappropriate marketing of breast-milk substitutes.”

Born to Breastfeed

The science on breastfeeding is crystal clear: breastfeeding helps infants and young children thrive. Breast milk provides antibodies that protect against common illnesses, and estimates suggest that if breastfeeding was more prevalent, hundreds of thousands of lives would be saved each year. From the UN statement:

Studies have indicated that breastfed children perform better on intelligence tests, are less likely to be obese or overweight, and are less prone to diabetes later in life. In addition, increasing breastfeeding globally would prevent an additional 20,000 cases of breast cancer in women annually.

Nevertheless, in spite of the many benefits of breastfeeding, for both the mother and child, only an estimated 1 in 3 infants under 6 months are exclusively breastfed globally. This rate has seen no improvement in the last two decades.

Here is where philanthropy could step in and do more. Important work needs to be done to reduce the gender stereotypes that keep women from practicing breastfeeding. More public health campaigns, both in the U.S. and abroad, to reduce the stigma of breastfeeding in public spaces would be a good place to start. More access to breastfeeding support for low-income women in the U.S. would also go a long way to improve the long-term health of many children.


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Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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