UNICEF promotes and supports the empowerment of women to breastfeed their children. UNICEF encourages governments and other stakeholders to develop and implement policies and plans of action that promote and protect: (1) early initiation of breastfeeding; (2) exclusive breastfeeding to 6 months; (3) continued breastfeeding from 6 to 24 months and beyond; and (4) appropriate complementary feeding from 6 months onwards.

UNICEF facilitates the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative to support breastfeeding in hospitals and health centres around the world. The Breastfeeding Committee of Canada administers the designation process in Canada based on the WHO/UNICEF “Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding” for hospitals and birthing centres. Canada now has 44 Baby Friendly health facilities that operate with the gold standard in breastfeeding promotion; 25 are in Quebec. Globally,154 countries and 21,000 health care facilities have been awarded Baby-Friendly status.

The UNICEF/World Health Organization Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding and policy on Acceptable Medical Reasons for the Use of Breastmilk Substitutes set out evidence-based practices in support of breastfeeding for optimal child health.

The number of Canadian mothers who initiate and sustain breastfeeding is slowly increasing, partly as a result of baby-friendlier maternal leave policies, and workplaces and communities supportive of breastfeeding mothers. But the decline in the number of women who intend to or start to breastfeed and those actually breastfeeding six months later is steep – suggesting that there is not yet sufficient support for breastfeeding in Canada. Breastfeeding initiation rates climbed to 87 per cent in 2005, and have held steady since then. However, only 14 per cent of mothers are breastfeeding at six months.

The decision to breastfeed is ultimately a mother’s. However, factors influencing a mother’s decision to breastfeed are numerous. Cultural habits and beliefs, social and economic status, social norms, ethnicity, the media and religion, as well as medicine, science and industry – all influence infant feeding decisions and practices. Mothers who make breastfeeding a success for themselves and their babies are likely to have several of the following support mechanisms in place:

  • They have supportive partners, families and friends
  • They live in a community and society with social norms supportive of good breastfeeding practices
  • They have the correct information about breastfeeding
  • They receive practical support from a lactation counsellor or other qualified person
  • They receive skilled support and correct advice from medical personnel
  • They deliver the baby in a facility that has “baby-friendly” policies, such as rooming in, feeding on demand, and practical breastfeeding support
  • They have a supportive workplace with appropriate mother and baby friendly policies.