Greater Food Insecurity Linked With Less Infant Consumption of Breast Milk, Study Shows

In a recent study by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), scientists in Kenya used isotopic techniques to associate greater food insecurity with a lower intake of breast milk. The results of the study were published last month in the Maternal and Child Nutrition journal.

The study also found no correlation between household food security status and exclusive breastfeeding rates in the first six months of life. “This implies that food insecurity may undermine breast milk output, but not her choice to give her infant breast milk only, which could be the result of inadequate energy and nutrient intake by the mother,” said Victor Owino, a nutrition specialist at the IAEA’s Division of Human Health.

According to the abstract, “Household food insecurity has been hypothesized to negatively impact breastfeeding practices and breast milk intake, but this relationship has not been rigorously assessed.”

Sera Young, a food security expert leading the IAEA-supported study and Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Global Health at Northwestern University in the United States said, “Before this study, the role of food insecurity in breastfeeding hadn’t been evaluated using an objective measurement of exclusive breastfeeding or quantity of breast milk ingested… This is an important missing piece of information, because of the high prevalence of food insecurity worldwide and the many pathways by which food insecurity may negatively impact exclusive breastfeeding.”

To generate more evidence for breastfeeding recommendations, the study used isotopic techniques to explore breastfeeding practices and to quantify breastmilk intake in an area of high food insecurity in Kenya. Over 100 mother-infant pairs were recruited, and researchers measured reported household food insecurity and breastmilk intake at six weeks and six months postpartum. To determine the amount of breast milk consumed by the infant, they used the deuterium oxide dose-to-mother technique (see Deuterium oxide dose-to-mother (DTM) technique), which entails giving lactating mothers small amounts of deuterium to drink and tracking its flow from the mother to the infant.

Around 2 billion people worldwide are currently exposed to food insecurity, meaning that they have no access to safe and affordable food for a day or more, according to a new United Nations system report on the state of food security and nutrition in the world.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that breastfeeding plays an essential role in providing infants with the necessary nutrients for optimal growth, development, and health. In addition, breastfeeding also has numerous health benefits for mothers and has been linked to protection against breast and ovarian cancers. WHO recommends infants be breastfed for the first six months of life, however recent data suggests that only 40% of infants under six months are exclusively breastfed.

The results of the most recent study have wide-reaching implications, explained Owino. “We can see that children are not well fed and are not getting enough nutrition, which affects them not only as children but can also impair their productivity later in life. Breastfeeding can be an important component in reaching development goals, not just in Africa, but worldwide,” he said. “Policies that enable timely screening and detection of food insecurity should be enacted to allow for appropriate mitigating interventions that not only protect breastfeeding but also ensure adequate maternal nutrient intake.”

Addressing food insecurity in particularly vulnerable populations, like populations of women suffering from HIV for whom good nutrition is important to maintain their immune systems, may not only increase breast milk intake and benefit the child but also address other health issues.

This study highlights an area of a prevalent food insecurity problem throughout the world. Food inequality is an issue that touches every person on this planet, whether they have enough food or not. The connection between breastfeeding and food insecurity in a country such as Kenya with areas of high food insecurity shows that the health sector, which is in charge of  breastfeeding counseling, education and awareness, as well as regular follow-ups, needs to work hand-in-hand with the agriculture sector, which is in charge of food security programs. Tired mothers, who may not be receiving proper nutrition themselves, may not have the time or energy to properly breastfeed their child, which can affect child development. To curb this, the health and agriculture sectors and relief organizations must collaborate with each other in order to most effectively serve their populations.