Current events

Breastfeeding, the most sustainable option for the planet

  Lactancia materna, opcin sostenible para el planeta

Photo: Dave Clubb / Unsplash

Carla Nieto
Breastfeeding for six months can save more than 100 kg of CO2 per baby, according to a study

In addition to the well-being benefits for mother and child, breastfeeding emits no CO2, creates no waste and consumes zero energy

The breastfeeding difficulties and work-life balance issues faced by some mothers pose obstacles to breastfeeding

The list of benefits offered by breastfeeding for the present and future health of mother and child is almost endless, with new evidence coming to light every few years. Among the benefits for women, breastfeeding is known to reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and of developing diseases such as hypertension. As for the benefits for children, breast milk has been shown to provide protection against infectious diseases, reduce the incidence and severity of diarrhoea, reduce the risk of common childhood illnesses such as respiratory infections and acute ear infections, prevent tooth decay, and even increase intelligence.

WHO's recommendations are very clear in this regard: exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for the first six months of life, and for up to at least two years as a complement to solid food.

In addition, breast milk affords other benefits whose impact is not yet sufficiently known by much of the population, and is becoming increasingly important in the current health, climate and environmental context, thanks to the benefits it offers from the point of view of the sustainability and well-being of the planet: "Breast milk is a natural, renewable food which leaves no carbon footprint. It needs no packaging, transport or fuel for its production, preparation and consumption, and it produces no waste." According to Anna Bach-Faig, professor at the UOC's Faculty of Health Sciences and researcher with the FoodLab group, these are the main reasons why breastfeeding is playing an increasingly important role in all initiatives aimed at improving environmental sustainability.


The "little known" impact on the environment

For some years now, a growing body of literature has demonstrated the close link between breast milk and phenomena such as climate change. One of the most recent studies in this area, conducted by experts at Imperial College London (United Kingdom) and published in the British Medical Journal, offers highly illuminating data on the subject: breastfeeding for 6 months saves between 95 and 154 kg of CO2 emissions per baby compared to formula. Another remarkable fact provided by this study is that the amount of hot water needed to heat bottles of formula involves an annual energy expense equivalent to that of charging 200 million mobile phones.

This year's World Breastfeeding Week (#WBW2020),  from 1–7 August, focuses on this important impact on global health, highlighting the role of breast milk as a major element of a sustainable food system, as well as other advantages from the environmental point of view. Mara Jos Rodrguez Lagunas, course instructor on the Master's Degree in Nutrition and Health at the UOC Faculty of Health Sciences and lecturer for the Physiology section of the University of Barcelona Faculty of Pharmacy and Food Sciences, explained: "The mother's breast is the best packaging there is: sterile, capable of administering the exact amount required by the baby, and at the perfect temperature. To replace breast milk with formula requires additional resources: packaging for the formula itself, consumption of water, bottles and teats, products to sterilize them with, heaters, etc."

One of the most important aspects being considered when determining the environmental benefits of breast milk compared to formula is their effect on our ecological footprint – the measure of the impact of human activities on nature. In this respect, a number of studies have compared the two on the basis of factors such as energy sources, carbon emissions, waste or water footprint – the total volume of fresh water used to produce goods and services. In all these aspects, the superiority of breast milk is beyond question. Rodrguez Lagunas explained that choosing to breastfeed avoids the negative ecological impact that comes from the ingredients in infant formula (not just the milk, but other added ingredients such as oils, vitamins, etc.); from the production of the formula; and from its transportation: "For these reasons, breastfeeding is not only the healthiest option for the baby, it's also the kindest to the environment."

Natalia Panadero, a researcher with the FoodLab group at the UOC, revealed a particularly illuminating fact. According to a number of studies, the countries most affected by climate change also report the lowest rates of breastfeeding: "This evidence makes breastfeeding an aspect to be taken into account in the planning and implementation of initiatives to reduce our environmental footprint, as well as in the planning of child nutrition programmes, especially during the first years of life."


Work-life balance and other barriers to "full" breastfeeding

Despite WHO recommendations, in reality only about 40% of babies are exclusively breastfed until six months of age. According to Rodrguez Lagunas, "Most mothers tend to be  sufficiently aware, but during this period they sometimes encounter difficulties that lead them to abandon the practice. Many of them are also not able to follow the recommended schedule, for occupational reasons, among others."


As for the main reasons for abandoning breastfeeding and some of the most typical situations that occur, mothers – especially first-time mothers – face many challenges that they must reconcile with fatigue and, sometimes, with pain and stress: "In addition, the baby often doesn't latch on properly, causing pain and even nipple cracking. Or the baby doesn't gain weight properly, maybe even loses weight, and this adds to the mother's – and the father's – stress, as they have no control over the amount of food the child is consuming, and sometimes end up thinking that the mother's milk is not nourishing the child, or is not good, and that is why the child is not thriving. If at this stage the mother is not supported by midwives or other healthcare professionals – through breastfeeding groups, or in consultation with the paediatrician – it's likely that she will end up opting for the quick solution: the bottle. Another difficulty we should remember is that even today it's still not easy to reconcile breastfeeding with working."

Rodrguez Lagunas believes that we still need to invest more time and resources in the promotion of breastfeeding, emphasizing its environmental contribution, which could be an added element that helps to raise awareness of the benefits of this option: "Knowing that, in addition to protecting your child, you are also taking care of the planet is one more reason to choose to breastfeed. Having evidence that such a simple, healthy action could be useful for the sustainability of the planet could help to motivate mothers who are already aware of environmental issues."


Mara Jos Rodrguez Lagunas

Expert in:

Knowledge area:

Natalia Panadero

researcher for the FoodLab group at the UOC.

Expert in:

Knowledge area:

Photograph of Anna Bach

Anna Bach Faig

Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences

Expert in: Promoting health through nutrition and exercise. Spokesperson for community nutrition: workplace nutrition, gastronomy, restaurants and health.

Knowledge area: Nutrition, food and health.

View file