Increasing breastfeeding to near-universal levels could save more than 800,000 lives every year, said the U.N.'s World Health Organization (WHO) in a statement.
The organization released the statement on Thursday on the occasion of World Breastfeeding Week, celebrated from Aug. 1 to Aug. 7 to encourage breastfeeding and improve the health of babies.
Focusing this year on the "Empower Parents, Enable Breastfeeding" theme, the WHO is working with UNICEF and other partners to shed light on the importance of family-friendly policies which enable breastfeeding and help parents nurture their children.
The two organizations called on governments and employers to adopt family-friendly policies including paid maternity leave for a minimum of 18 weeks as well as paid paternity leave, said the statement.
The WHO also called for "greater investment in comprehensive breastfeeding programs" and an "end to the promotion of breast-milk substitutes." It stressed that family-friendly policies support women participation in the workforce, improve their physical and mental well-being and enhance family bonds.
"Increasing breastfeeding to near-universal levels could save more than 800 000 lives every year, the majority being children under 6 months," it said, adding that increased breastfeeding could avert 20,000 maternal deaths each year due to breast cancer. The benefits of breastfeeding include "decrease in the risk of mothers developing breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease," the statement also said.