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Research on breastfeeding and climate change

Below is a selection of studies exploring the impact of breastfeeding on sustainability and climate change.

The interconnection of environment, climate change and infant nutrition

This resource will support healthcare professionals to learn about the impact of different forms of infant feeding on the environment and how climate change threatens the nutrition of mothers and infants.

Smith, E. et al. 2022. The interconnection of environment, climate change and infant nutrition. 

Maternal and child nutrition must be at the heart of the climate change agendas

Women, infants, and children are strongly vulnerable to climate change for several reasons. Climate change events create conditions that make it difficult for infants to breastfeed in both low- and high- income settings. Given how crucial breastfeeding is for child health and development it is imperative that it is protected and supported during climate-related events.  To prevent further climate change shocks and their disproportionate impact on the wellbeing of women and children, it is crucial to transform the current failing food systems into healthy and sustainable food systems that support breastfeeding and access to affordable healthy foods and beverages preconceptionally and during pregnancy, lactation, and early childhood. Moving forward it is key that breastfeeding is supported during climate change related humanitarian emergencies as well as during normal circumstances. This is because breastfeeding improvements can help mitigate climate change as it is a “green” infant feeding practice compared to infant formula.

This paper develops an analytical framework for representing infant feeding methods in energy systems models by comparing both the emissions saved in Ireland from decarbonising the industrial processing of breastmilk substitutes with renewable gas, and the emissions saved by an increase in exclusive breastfeeding to 50% in Ireland and the key export market of China. Emissions saved from achieving the minimum global breastfeeding target were found to be greater than when renewable gas was used to displace natural gas in the production of breastmilk substitutes in Ireland. Greenhouse gas emission savings were far greater in countries where breastfeeding targets were reached, indicating that breastfeeding rates will continue to influence the demand for energy services associated with breastmilk substitutes. The paper calls for breastfeeding support to be positioned as both a public health and a climate justice issue.

Long, A. et al. 2021. Infant feeding and the energy transition: A comparison between decarbonising breastmilk substitutes with renewable gas and achieving the global nutrition target for breastfeeding

Climate Change and Infant Nutrition: Estimates of Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Milk Formula Sold in Selected Asia Pacific Countries

There is growing recognition that current food systems and policies are environmentally unsustainable and that sustainability objectives need to be integrated into national food policy and dietary recommendations. This study aims to describe exploratory estimates of greenhouse gas emission factors for all infant and young child milk formula products and provides an estimate for national greenhouse gas emission association with commercial milk formulas sold in selected countries in the Asia Pacific region. Key findings call for policies, programmes and investments to shift infant and young child diets towards less manufactured milk formula and more breastfeeding in order to improve the sustainability of the global food system.

Dadhich J, Smith JP, Iellamo A, Suleiman A. Climate Change and Infant Nutrition: Estimates of Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Milk Formula Sold in Selected Asia Pacific Countries. Journal of Human Lactation. 2021;37(2):314-322. doi:10.1177/0890334421994769

The First-Food System: The Importance of Breastfeeding in Global Food Systems Discussions

Explicitly recognising the barriers to breastfeeding within the food system and recognising breastmilk as a critical first food are important first steps in ensuring that children around the world receive the food and nutrition they need to grow, survive, and thrive. This paper provides a framework for exploring the relationship between food supply chains, the food environment, consumer behaviours and health and nutrition outcomes. Stakeholders across the food system are urged to act to ensure women and families have the ability and support to make the best food choices for their children, including breastfeeding.

Climate Change, Food Supply, and Dietary Guidelines

Increasing breastfeeding rates correlates to improved infant and adult health and helps to reduce greenhouse gases and lessen the environmental impact of food alternatives. When compared with breastmilk, milk production uses large amounts of water and has a high carbon footprint. These guidelines emphasise the importance of promoting and protecting breastfeeding in order to support the reduction of waste, food contamination (chemical and microbiological), and spoilage. Food security for infants and young children is not possible without promoting and achieving high rates of breastfeeding.

Binns. C. et al. 2021. Climate Change, Food Supply and Dietary Guidelines. Vol. 42:233-255.

Breastfeeding and Climate Change: Overlapping Vulnerabilities and Integrating Responses

This paper builds on the tradition of advocacy in the breastfeeding community and adds to the growing environmental analyses by introducing political ecological and ecofeminist theoretical frameworks to examine the complex relationship between climate change, breastfeeding and the influences of global capitalism, and offers a holistic response framework.

Support for breastfeeding is an environmental imperative

Conversations around the complex subject of infant feeding have invariably focused on health outcomes, but recent studies have highlighted the environmental cost of decades of disinvestment in services to support breastfeeding. This paper discusses how production of unnecessary infant and toddler formulas exacerbates environmental damage and should be a matter of increasing global concern. Breastfeeding uses fewer resources and produces minimal or zero waste and is associated with infant and maternal health outcomes which produce healthier populations that use fewer healthcare resources.