An Investment Tip for World Leaders: Breastfeeding Makes Countries Healthier and Wealthier

It may surprise many to learn that one of the most powerful things a country can do to set itself on a path to health and prosperity starts the day a baby is born. The healthy growth and development of not only children but also societies depends on good nutrition. And when it comes to good nutrition, it doesn't get any better than breast milk.

Breastfeeding: The Cornerstone of Child Health and Development

New evidence recently published in the British medical journal The Lancet revealed that breastfeeding has the power to save more than 800,000 children's lives each year and increase a child's IQ by three to four points. This makes supporting breastfeeding the single largest action that we can take to ensure children survive and thrive. Not only does breast milk acts as a child's first line of defense, protecting from infections, disease, and other potentially life-threatening illnesses, it also fuels brain development. The evidence shows that when children are breastfed longer and exclusively for their first six months they are more likely to do better in school, get higher paying jobs, and contribute more to their country's economy.

Despite the tremendous benefits of breastfeeding, less than 40 percent of children under 6 months are exclusively breastfed around the world, resulting in huge health and economic losses for both individuals and nations. In low income countries like Bangladesh and middle income countries like Mexico low breastfeeding rates are estimated to cost countries up to $70 billion a year in health care costs and lost productivity. In high-income countries like the U.S., this number is more than $230 billion in losses.

Promoting Breastfeeding in Vietnam: It's Working

As The Lancet rightly points out: "Success in breastfeeding is not the sole responsibility of a woman--the promotion of breastfeeding is a collective societal responsibility."

This insight contributes to the success of a program supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Alive and Thrive, which is a terrific case study for how countries can increase breastfeeding rate.

Since 2009, breastfeeding rates in Vietnam have tripled from 20 percent to over 60 percent. This dramatic increase is due in part to Alive and Thrive's innovative communications efforts and advocacy to support the growing political resolve on the part of Vietnamese policymakers to protect breastfeeding.

Five years ago, Alive and Thrive launched several television spots in Vietnam to promote breastfeeding and address misperceptions about the adequacy of breast milk. Their "talking babies" TV spots were viewed by new mothers across the country, reaching 800,000 women in 2013 alone.

Just one year following the launch of the TV spots, exclusive breastfeeding rates had risen dramatically to over 40 percent. But it wasn't just TV commercials that moved the needle in Vietnam. In 2012, the Vietnamese National Assembly extended paid maternity leave from four to six months to support women to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of a child's life.

Countries like Vietnam show us that incredible progress is possible. What's needed is political action and an investment in supporting mothers to breastfeed.

The Time to Invest is Now

Despite the naysayers, the science is clear: Breastfeeding saves lives and gives kids the strongest start to life. And we know what works--a shift in policies and social norms can make a huge difference in achieving breastfeeding success for both mom and baby.

It's time for policymakers to step up and recognize that healthy societies aren't made--they're born. And they're born every day with each new child that is brought into the world. Let's make sure our children get off to a great start by giving them the opportunity to reap the incredible benefits of breastfeeding.

When world leaders convene on the eve of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil at the "Nutrition for Growth" summit, they have the chance to make bold commitments to improve the lives of kids everywhere. There is no better place to start than with breastfeeding.

This post is part of series produced by The Huffington Post and 1,000 Days to bring awareness to National Nutrition Month, celebrated every year in March. This year is nutrition's "Olympic moment" as world leaders will gather on the eve of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil at the "Nutrition for Growth" summit to make bold commitments towards ending malnutrition, which is responsible for nearly half of all childhood deaths around the world. Join the conversation by using the #MarchForNutrition hashtag, and read all posts in the series here.