August is National Breastfeeding Month, and the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee has chosen “This is Our Why” as its theme this year. Much has been written about the physical benefits of breastfeeding for mother and child—better infection protection for babies and reduced cancer, high blood pressure, and diabetes risks for mom. I want to dive a bit deeper into the benefits for society. Positive outcomes begin at the individual level, but, as it turns out, breastfeeding benefits all of us.


As a mother breastfeeds her baby, they experience close, skin-to-skin contact, promoting bonding and attachment. Mom usually talks to the baby, furthering that bond with the baby that close and looking up, the mother’s face is in the perfect range of the child’s visual ability at that age. The intimacy causes a surge of oxytocin, the love hormone, in both mother and child. Oxytocin promotes healing, reduces stress and sensitivity to pain, and lowers blood pressure for both participants. Another effect of the hormone is a feeling of confidence in the mother as she realizes she can care for her child perfectly. Feeling cared for and supported, the infant has an increased sense of security, leading to lower levels of depression, fewer behavioral issues, and better social functioning. Autistic spectrum disorders have been linked to low levels of oxytocin.


It’s fairly easy to extrapolate some of those individual benefits to society. When babies have less protection from illnesses, they get sick more often and must visit a doctor. That can spread the illness and prevent at least one caregiver from working. Those visits and medications cost money; the caregiver may also deal with lost wages. Longer term, babies who aren’t breastfed are more likely to be obese, have other health issues, and score lower on I.Q. tests. These factors may reduce their ability to contribute to the workforce, earn good wages, and thrive in society. In turn, they may pay less taxes and rely more on government subsidies. In the U.S. alone, the mortality, morbidity, and health system costs of not breastfeeding total nearly $170 billion per year, in addition to the $2.2 billion spent on breast milk substitutes and 12,669 deaths. And this isn’t just a U.S. issue.

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The World

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend that infants are breastfed within an hour of birth, exclusively breastfed until they are six months old, and offered food and breast milk until they are at least two years old. But fewer than half the world’s infants are fed in a way that meets these guidelines. The consequences of that are staggering. According to the WHO’s The Cost of Not Breastfeeding Tool , the annual global results of not meeting breastfeeding recommendations include the following:

  • $507 billion in economic costs
  • $24 billion in health system costs
  • 4.6 million cases of childhood obesity
  • 195 million I.Q. points lost
  • 424,249 deaths of children
  • 93,863 deaths of mothers

Encouraging breastfeeding can also help mitigate pressure on the infant formula supply chain while recovering from the recent shortage. Knowing she can feed her baby herself will also reduce a new mom’s concern about formula shortages, whether the supply is safe, and affordability since breastfeeding saves a family $1,200 to $2,000 versus buying formula.


Many expectant mothers have a vague idea that they should breastfeed, but few understand all the potential benefits for themselves, their babies, and society. As a nurse educator at Maryville University specializing in maternal-newborn nursing, lactation, and hospital prenatal instruction, I’m proud to see students go from classroom theory to a clinical environment where they see how it all comes together to impact real moms and babies in real life situations. I encourage students to provide that education to parents and set them up for family success. They can support, validate, and do small things to boost the mom’s confidence to care for her family. Students often report how rewarding it is to see a new mother gain confidence and feel better equipped to handle motherhood through something as simple and natural as breastfeeding.

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One of the best ways to invest in the future is by protecting and promoting breastfeeding, being tireless patient advocates, and helping new and expectant mothers understand that breast milk is a baby’s optimal first food. It’s good for everyone—this is our why.

Elizabeth Stuesse
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