World Breastfeeding Week has officially begun. From August 1-7, 2010, individuals and organizations worldwide will host events, photo contests, and letter-signing campaigns in support of successful breastfeeding around the world.

World Breastfeeding Week is an initiative of the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), and will be held for the 19th year with support from the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the Pan American Health Organization, and breastfeeding advocates around the globe. This year’s theme, “Breastfeeding: Just 10 Steps—The Baby Friendly Way,” focuses on the role of health facilities in promoting breastfeeding support.

Every year, 8.8 million children under age five die from preventable causes. Research has shown that breastfeeding in the first two years of life can have the most significant impact on child survival than any other health intervention. The U.S. Surgeon General has issued a statement reconfirming the maternal and infant health benefits of breastfeeding to kick-off World Breastfeeding Week. She also stated that she will issue a “Call to Action” in the fall addressing how all sectors of the community can help create an environment that is supportive of mothers who choose to breastfeed, regardless of their income and background.

Given the critical nature of successful breastfeeding practices to reducing infant mortality and to improving infant health, the World Health Organization and UNICEF outlined “Ten Steps for Successful Breastfeeding” in a joint statement “Protecting, Promoting, and Supporting Breastfeeding: The Special Role of Maternity Services” in 1989. These ten steps were operationalized three years later in 1992 as part of the WHO/UNICEF Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative. The Initiative’s goal was to have hospitals around the world accept the ten steps and implement them in their maternity services. Hospitals that did so were certified as being “Baby-Friendly.”

There are certified “Baby-Friendly” hospitals in more than 150 countries today, and several nations have made concerted efforts to support breastfeeding at the community and at the national level. However, only around 37 percent of mothers worldwide exclusively breastfeed their infants, and only 25 percent of hospitals are certified as “Baby-Friendly.”

To help improve these statistics, this year’s World Breastfeeding Week is focused on making these Ten Steps the standard practice in all health care facilities.

While breastfeeding support in clinics and hospitals is necessary, significant challenges to breastfeeding remain in the wider community. Barriers to breastfeeding exist within cultures and attitudes, within families, societies, and—importantly, within workplaces. Lack of information, guidance, and lack of access to resources can also pose insurmountable challenges to mothers, even if they want to exclusively nurse their children.

So,  as we highlight the importance of hospital support for breastfeeding this week, let’s also think about how we can take a community-wide approach to supporting mothers outside the hospital—in shopping centers, within families, and—very importantly—within workplaces. Even if mothers begin to nurse at the hospital after birth, a lack of workplace policy and appropriate support by management will mean that they are not likely to continue breastfeeding.

That’s why Corporate Voices for Working Families has published its toolkit, Workplace Lactation Programs: Good for Working Families, Good for Business. The toolkit provides a practical, user-friendly guide for managers in businesses to implement a workplace lactation program, and explains why it makes sound business sense to do so. Corporate Voices believes that programs that help working mothers nurse will improve worker productivity, loyalty, engagement, and retention. The toolkit also provides resources and guides for new mothers on how to request a lactation program, and what they will need to do to return to work and successfully continue breastfeeding. We plan to issue an updated and expanded version of this Toolkit in the fall.

As the Affordable Care Act has included a requirement for workplace lactation in the U.S., Corporate Voices will work closely with the Department of Labor and the business community to help broaden awareness of the positive business and health benefits of breastfeeding. Please stay tuned!