If more women around the world breastfeed their infants, it would reduce the number of children and mothers who die.

That’s the conclusion of researchers who estimated what would happen if there were nearly universal levels for breastfeeding in both industrial and developing countries.

The researchers anticipated the lives of 800,000 children could be saved every year from increased breastfeeding. That’s equivalent to 13 percent of all deaths in children under the age of 2 worldwide.

In addition, they said, another 20,000 deaths from breast cancer could be prevented every year.

The international team of researchers published their findings today in The Lancet. The project was funded, in part, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Breastfeeding Benefits

The researchers said only one in five children in higher-income nations are breastfed to 12 months of age. They added only one in three children in lower and middle-income countries are exclusively breastfed until 6 months of age.

As a result, the researchers said, millions of children are failing to receive the full benefits provided by breastfeeding.

The researchers looked at 28 systematic reviews and meta-analyses. They said the data showed breastfeeding not only improves the health of babies and mothers, it also increases life expectancy.

For example, they said, breastfeeding reduces the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in higher-income countries by one-third. In lower-income and middle-income nations, the researchers said breastfeeding could prevent half of diarrhea cases and a third of all respiratory infections.

They added that long-term breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer in mothers.

"There is a widespread misconception that the benefits of breastfeeding only relate to poor countries. Nothing could be further from the truth," study author Dr. Cesar Victora, Emeritus Professor at the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil, said in a statement. "Our work for this series clearly shows that breastfeeding saves lives and money in all countries, rich and poor alike.”

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Breastfeeding Rates Are Low

The researchers said, despite all the health benefits, breastfeeding rates are low across the globe, particularly in higher-income countries.

In the United Kingdom, for example, about 1 percent of babies are breastfed until they are 12 months old. In Ireland, it’s 2 percent and in Denmark it’s 3 percent. In the United States, about 27 percent of infants are breastfed until 12 months, according to a CDC report.

One reason for the low rate in developed countries, the researchers said, is the availability of milk products that aren’t necessarily available in poorer regions.

The researchers added that breastfeeding rates can be increased by scaling up policies and programs that encourage the practice.

In Bangladesh, they noted, breastfeeding rates increased 13 percent after intervention measures were introduced.

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