Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

How breastfeeding can tackle climate change

When asked for ways to reduce your carbon footprint, many people would suggest using public transport, reducing single-use plastic usage and eating less meat. However, there is another unexpected way to fight climate change: breastfeeding. The positive environmental impact of breastfeeding is widespread. This is, of course, not the most inclusive form of climate action. But, with two-thirds of the world’s babies on formula milk, it is important to consider the environmental impact of both methods.

Breastfeeding is a personal choice, not every woman has the ability or the desire to breastfeed and so it is impossible to completely stop using breast milk alternatives. Formula is a great solution for those who choose to use it because it provides your baby with all the nutrients that they need for development. We are fortunate to live in an age where formula is an option for mothers who cannot produce their own milk or are having other issues. However, there are several environmental benefits of breastfeeding and those who want to do it should be supported more.

Breastfeeding is a personal choice, not every woman has the ability or the desire to breastfeed and so it is impossible to completely stop using breast milk alternatives

The main reason why breastfeeding is beneficial for the environment is that it produces zero carbon emissions and very minimal waste. A recent study showed that breastfeeding one baby for six months is equivalent to removing 77,500 cars from the roads for one year when compared to formula alternatives. This demonstrates clearly how breastfeeding could reduce the carbon emissions produced by an individual as well as a household.

On the other hand, the reason why formula produces such a high carbon footprint is because of the multiple ingredients which are used to make it nutritional for the baby. In addition, transporting the ingredients and the formula contributes significantly to the global carbon footprint. It is estimated that the water footprint for a kilogram of formula is about 4,700L. For comparison, a steak has a water footprint of about 3,000L and a kilogram of formula is used up in about 1-3 weeks.

Breastfeeding one baby for six months is equivalent to removing 77,500 cars from the roads for one year when compared to formula alternatives

Another factor that plays a key role in formula milk is the energy used to boil water. Since the formula is not sterile, it needs to be mixed with water of at least 70 degrees to make it safe for the baby. Taking the average energy costs into account, it is estimated that the water boiled for formula milk in the first year of the baby’s life amounts to over 1.5 million kg of carbon dioxide being produced.

Not many people consider the fact that breastfeeding delays the return of periods for many women. This is a big factor in reducing the carbon footprint as using disposable sanitary towels and tampons is a key contributor to landfill waste and our personal carbon emissions. Of course, for those who use reusable products such as a menstrual cup, this isn’t such a big contributor.

Governments need to invest more in support by health professionals surrounding all areas of breastfeeding and new-borns

All these environmental factors show how reducing the reliance on formula where possible can help to correct the climate crisis. However, many believe that there is not enough support for mothers who choose to breastfeed. Women can face several obstacles when it comes to breastfeeding. These can include: knowing the correct way for babies to latch, recognising when the baby has had enough milk and dealing with breast pain. Another key problem is that many women do not know who to turn to for help and can end up feeling discouraged and even giving up on breastfeeding when things don’t go smoothly. Therefore, for breastfeeding rates to increase, governments need to invest more in support by health professionals surrounding all areas of breastfeeding and new-borns.

Another way that breastfeeding mothers may be discouraged is by the social stigma that still exists in public spaces. Whilst it is illegal to discriminate against a breastfeeding mother in any public space in England and Wales, unfortunately it still happens. Perhaps if societal norms changed and more support was implemented, there would be a rise in breastfeeding rates in the UK. Of course, it is important to respect the various reasons why a mother might choose not to breastfeed her baby. However, with the right encouragement and support, breastfeeding is another fantastic example of positive climate action.

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