Why don't we talk about the environmental benefits of breastfeeding?

Today marks the start of World Breastfeeding Week. The theme this year is "about how breastfeeding is a key element in getting us to think about how to value our wellbeing from the start of life, how to respect each other and care for the world we share". Yep, its not particularly catchy and can probably be interpreted in many ways.


But, it's very ambitious. The World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), which organises World Breastfeeding Week, is trying to link breastfeeding to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that form the basis of the UN Transforming Our World 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

I really like the ideology of encouraging respect for each other and maybe not being quite so judgemental about breastfeeding v bottle feeding. This is something I'll blog about later this week. But what really struck me was the focus on caring for the world we share and the environmental issues around infant feeding. Why is so much breastfeeding information focused on the benefits to baby - and sometimes to mum - instead of the wider benefits to the world?

Deciding, or often being forced into a decision, on how to feed your child is usually based on a myriad of contributing factors: receiving adequate support from professionals, family and friends; health; financial capabilities; convenience etc. But being environmentally friendly isn't usually near the top of anyone's list!

When you've had a baby, being green is normally reserved for deciding which nappy to use (disposable or washable), or which high chair or clothes you'll buy (sustainable cotton anyone?). And maybe, as you start to introduce solid food, you'll choose whether to buy organic where possible.

But how many people decide to breastfeed because it's better for the planet?

Quite a few years ago, a friend of mine had twins. She kept every single tin of formula she bought as a reminder of how much money she had spent feeding them during the first six months of their lives. But it's not just the financial cost: for every tin or ready made carton, there is an environmental cost too.

Here are some of the environmental costs of formula milk

  • Packaging - although some can be recycled, the majority goes to landfill. And then, of course, there are the resources used to create the packaging in the first place: ink, metals, paper, oil etc.
  • Transport - formula needs to be shipped from the manufacturers to the shops and then back to your house. And the ingredients need to be shipped to the manufacturers in the first place.
  • Energy - the factories that make formula use up energy, which is often created from fossil fuels. Oh, and don't forget the energy used to feed the cows, plant the crops, drive the tractors, create the chemicals and synthetic ingredients. And if you want something a bit closer to home, think about the electricity you use to boil the kettle and the water you use to wash up and sterilise the bottles and teats.
  • Feeding equipment - it's not just the actual formula that has an environmental cost attached to it, don't forget the resources used to create the bottles, teats, steriliser machines etc.
  • Land clearance - most formula is based on cow's milk and cow's need land to graze on, which often results in tree felling to clear forests.
Breastfeeding, on the other hand, is a sustainable and renewable resource and the only waste it creates is (usually) contained in your baby's nappy! The only extra energy it requires is the cake and tea a mother needs to maintain her energy and sanity levels.

I believe that formula plays an important role in enabling parents to feed their babies and that sometimes there really isn't a choice. But where there is a choice, perhaps thinking about the planet we are bringing our children up in should be a factor in our decision on how to feed our infants.

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