PARIS • Breastfeeding more babies for longer could save the global economy some US$300 billion (S$426 billion) in a single year, simply by yielding smarter and higher- earning offspring.
Researchers yesterday said it would also prevent more than 800,000 child deaths, and about 20,000 breast cancer deaths every year. "Breastfeeding saves lives and money in all countries, rich and poor alike," said Mr Cesar Victora from the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil, one of the authors of a research series published by The Lancet medical journal.
The findings were based on an analysis of 28 scientific reviews and meta analyses that looked at the proven health and economic benefits of breastfeeding.
The authors said this was the largest and most detailed analysis of its kind ever done.
It concluded that breastfeeding led to a "dramatic" improvement in life expectancy.
In high-income countries, it reduced the risk of sudden infant deaths by more than a third. In low- and middle-income countries, it could prevent about half of diarrhoea episodes and a third of respiratory infections.
Altogether, the lives of about 800,000 children could be saved every year - the equivalent of about 13 per cent of all deaths in children under two.
"It also increases intelligence," the authors said in a statement.
"Modelling conducted for the series estimates that global economic losses of lower cognition from not breastfeeding reached a staggering US$302 billion in 2012." This was about half a per cent of the world's gross national income.
Last year, a study in The Lancet Global Health journal said breastfeeding led to increased adult intelligence and higher adult earnings.
The new findings said boosting breastfeeding rates for children under six months to 90 per cent in the US, China and Brazil, and to 45 per cent in Britain, would dramatically cut treatment costs of common childhood illnesses such as pneumonia, diarrhoea and asthma.
In the United States, the savings would be US$2.45 billion, in Britain US$29.5 million, in China US$223.6 million, and in Brazil US$6 million.
For women, longer breastfeeding has been shown to reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, the study's authors said.
Yet, just one in five children in high-income countries is breastfed to 12 months, and one in three in low- and middle-income countries is exclusively breastfed for the first six months.
Breastfeeding is much more common in poor countries.
Breast milk is free, nutritious and protective against disease, but not always practical for women who cannot be on call around the clock. In some societies, it is frowned upon to breastfeed in public.
And in some cases, it can be dangerous - breastfeeding can pass on the HIV virus that causes Aids from infected mothers to their children.
The researchers called for political commitment and financial investment to make it easier for women to breastfeed, and tighter regulation of the breast milk substitute industry.