Breastfeeding: major factor in preventing chronic diseases

China celebration of World Breastfeeding Week launched in Beijing

01 August 2011

BEIJING, 1 August 2011 – The benefits of breastfeeding in protecting infants from infection and promoting a strong bond between mother and baby are widely understood; however, fewer people realize that breastfeeding has a significant impact on preventing chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers. This was one of the key messages delivered at today's launch of World Breastfeeding Week in China.

"There is good scientific data that breastfeeding in not just a short term child survival intervention, but also a long-term population health intervention," said Dale Rutstein, UNICEF Officer-in-Charge, in his remarks at the launch. "Families need to know that that breastfeeding – not infant formula - is the safest and best approach to good nutrition for life."

World Breastfeeding Week activities got off to a strong start with a forum jointly organized by the Ministry of Health, UNICEF and the World Health Organization. UNICEF Ambassador Yang Lan also graced the event.

UNICEF Ambassador Yang Lan shares her own experience of breastfeeding with the new mothers at the launch event.

Drawing from her own experience of breastfeeding, Yang Lan appealed to new mothers to give breast milk as the best gift to their children, "My own children were breastfed in the first six months and rarely fell sick. Scientific data also show that those who are breastfed have higher IQ than those who do not."

"The support from the husband and the whole family is also crucial… Employers also need to support mothers to fulfil this most important role by creating a more supportive environment." She added. More mother-baby rooms should be set up in public venues and more flexible time should be granted by employers to support working mothers, Yang suggested.

Breastfeeding rates in China are low, particularly the rate of exclusive breast-feeding for the first 6 months of life, as recommended by UNICEF and WHO.  This has prompted a new push by China's health authorities to increase these rates in China, and to encourage continuation of breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary food for at least the first two years of life, as also recommended.

One of the major reasons for the low rates of breastfeeding in China is the billions of yuan that are spent on exaggerated claims in infant formula advertising each year. As a result, many women have been led to believe that artificial breast milk substitutes are good for their children.

"The message that breastfeeding can prevent heart disease, obesity and diabetes," said Rutstein, "in addition to boosting child intelligence and preventing breast and ovarian cancer in women, is urgent and timely as chronic diseases account for an increasing share of all health problems in China."

Following presentations from invited officials, a large group of health workers and mothers-to-be participated in an intensive seminar designed to help improve knowledge of the latest benefits of breastfeeding together with improved techniques for supporting mothers of newborns to successfully breastfeed.

The global theme of this year's World Breastfeeding Week "Talk to Me: Breastfeeding a 3D Experience" is designed to emphasize the importance of all sectors of society – including young people, men, the elderly as well as women in receiving and sharing information about breastfeeding. When correct messages are provided to young people at an early age they are more likely to commit themselves to supporting breastfeeding later on in life. Rutstein urged use of new media, such as the internet, blogs and SMS messaging, to reach young people, raising their knowledge on appropriate infant and young child nutrition before they fall under the influence of infant formula manufacturers.

Summary of Evidence on Breastfeeding and prevention of chronic disease:

  • Current research suggests that the risk of chronic disease is 20% to more than 200% higher in those who are not breastfed compared to those who were breastfed in infancy. *
  • Breastfeeding in infancy is associated with lower mean serum cholesterol levels in adult life. The effect is significant and larger than dietary advice or multiple risk factor interventions. **
  • Studies from Western Europe and North America suggest that breastfeeding has a significant effect on the prevalence of obesity. **
  • Breastfeeding has a protective effect on the risk of type 2 diabetes. The effect of breastfeeding is significant and of similar magnitude as diet/dietary advice and exercise.**
  • Breastfeeding has a significant effect size of 4.9 point difference in intelligence test scores.**

*Source: Smith JP, Harvey PJ. Public Health Nutrition, 2010. Chronic disease and infant nutrition: is it significant to public health?; WHO, 2010 preliminary data
** Source: Evidence on the long term effects of breastfeeding. WHO, 2007

Media contacts

Liu Li
Communication Specialist
Tel: +86-10-85312612


UNICEF works in some of the world's toughest places, to reach the world's most disadvantaged children. Across 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone. For more information about UNICEF and its work for children visit                                                  

Visit UNICEF China website:
Follow us on Sina Weibo:
Tencent Weibo:
Wechat: unicefchina 
WeChat QRcode