The World Health Organization and the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) recommend that mothers breastfeed within the first hour after giving birth and continue until their children reach age 2, with supplemental food as they grow older. Yet no country in the world meets these standards or provides enough support for breastfeeding mothers, according to a report the agencies released Tuesday.

“Breast milk works like a baby’s first vaccine, protecting infants from potentially deadly diseases and giving them all the nourishment they need to survive and thrive,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said in a press release.

Anthony Lake, executive director of UNICEF, posed this question on UNICEF’s website: “What if governments had a proven, cost-effective way to save babies’ lives, reduce rates of malnutrition, support children’s health, increase educational attainment and grow productivity?”

Lake provided the answer: “They do: It’s called breastfeeding. And it is one of the best investments nations can make in the lives and futures of their youngest members — and in the long-term strength of their societies.”

According to the Global Breastfeeding Initiative, a partnership of 20 international agencies whose goal is to increase investment in breastfeeding worldwide under the leadership of UNICEF and WHO, breastfeeding can bolster brain development, which in turn can lead to a smarter, more productive work force.

Furthermore, breastfeeding saves mothers’ and babies’ lives. In the first six months of life, it helps prevent diarrhea and pneumonia, two major causes of infant death. Breastfeeding also reduces the risk of ovarian and breast cancer, two leading causes of death among women.

The World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the WHO, wants to see at least 50 percent of the world’s children under 6 months of age exclusively breastfed by 2025. Reaching that target will require an investment of an additional $5.7 billion, or just $4.70 per newborn, for such things as improving breastfeeding practices in maternity facilities and improving access to lactation counseling — and it could generate $300 billion in economic gains  across lower- and middle-income countries by 2025 and save 520,000 children’s lives in the next 10 years, according to a World Bank study.

Because nursing mothers need support from their families and communities, and governments worldwide need to implement policies such as paid maternity leave and nursing breaks, the U.N. agencies declared August 1-7 World Breastfeeding Week.

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