Breastfeeding studies often focus on the benefits to the child, but as research in the field progresses, findings suggest there is also a link between breastfeeding and a reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer, among other benefits to the mother. A non-radioactive nuclear technique offers a way to obtain more information on breastfeeding practices, in particular on the frequency and duration of breastfeeding, which in turn can help mothers worldwide.
“Breastfeeding has been shown for quite some time to have many benefits for children, especially in their first years of life, but often people overlook the importance it has for the mother too,” said Cornelia Loechl, Head of the Nutrition Section at the IAEA.
At current rates, breastfeeding prevents an estimated 20 000 breast cancer deaths per year, when compared with no breastfeeding, according to a recent paper published in the The Lancet Breastfeeding Series. Further, an additional 20 000 lives per year could be saved by increasing breastfeeding duration from current levels to 12 months per child in high-income countries and to 2 years per child in low- and middle-income countries. Breastfeeding could also reduce incidents of ovarian cancer by up to 30%. However, they caution that the data shows great variation between countries, and much of the data relied on self-reported habits.
This is where nuclear techniques could play a stronger role, because one way to collect data is with the deuterium dilution dose-to-mother technique. This is a method for assessing breastfeeding practices by tracking the flow of deuterium, a stable (non-radioactive) isotope of hydrogen, from the mother to her infant. A lactating mother drinks water containing the isotope, which then mixes with water in her body, including her milk, and enters the baby when it suckles. Scientists collect and analyze saliva samples over a two-week period. The enrichment of deuterium is plugged into a mathematical model to accurately determine the amount of breast milk consumed by the infant and whether the infant is exclusively breastfed.
“With this method we can help to gather objective data on exclusive breastfeeding rates that validate the information obtained from mothers’ own recall of breastfeeding practices in surveys,” said Loechl. The method is already being successfully used with IAEA assistance in almost 30 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to monitor and assess the impact of breastfeeding promotion programmes for improving the health of mothers and their babies.
Supporting sustainable development
The IAEA’s work related to breastfeeding is just one way in which the IAEA works with Member States to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were adopted by the United Nations in September 2015. The 17 goals aim at stimulating action over the next 15 years in areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet. Under goal three on health, this breastfeeding work addresses the target on the reduction of premature mortality from non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, by one third by 2030. While in addition to maternal health, it also feeds into goal two’s targets related to hunger and nutrition and goal four’s targets on childhood development and education, among others.
Many countries receive assistance from the IAEA in using nuclear and stable isotope techniques toward reaching their development goals and achieving the SDGs. The IAEA’s work focuses on capacity building and empowerment through education, technical support, and coordination, and through the provision of equipment. Read more about How the IAEA Contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals.