Breastfeeding Rates in Cambodia at “Alarming” Decline

A survey by UNICEF, World Vision and partners has found that breastfeeding rates have fallen due to breast milk substitutes, a lack of awareness of breastfeeding benefits and workplace support
A mother holds her baby near a hospital in Phnom Penh, February 1, 2023. Kiripost/Siv Channa
A mother holds her baby near a hospital in Phnom Penh, February 1, 2023. Kiripost/Siv Channa

Early breastfeeding rates have declined in Cambodia to 54 percent from 66 percent in the last decade, warn UNICEF, World Vision International and their partners, adding that exclusive breastfeeding dropped from 74 percent to 50 percent in that period.

The decline in breastfeeding was observed even before the Covid-19 pandemic, they said in a joint statement as part of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement yesterday.

“These results are worrisome as breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure child health and survival at the start of life,” UNICEF and World Vision said.

According to the organisations, early breastfeeding is when a baby is fed with breast milk within an hour of birth, while exclusive breastfeeding is feeding babies only breast milk for the first six months of their life.

Both UNICEF and World Vision claimed that the results are worrisome as breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure child health and survival at the start of life.

They urged that authorities look at immediately reversing the “alarming” decline in breastfeeding rates, as reflected by the latest Cambodia Demographic Health Survey (CDHS) between 2021 and 2022.

The survey identified several factors that might have contributed to the decline in breastfeeding rates.

These include the continued aggressive marketing of breast milk substitutes (BMS), such as infant formula, lack of awareness of breastfeeding benefits over BMS, and limited support for breastfeeding mothers as they return to work.

Saving lives

UNICEF representative in Cambodia, Dr Will Parks, said breast milk is one of the greatest gifts a mother can give her child.

Infants nurtured through breastfeeding are more likely to survive, are more protected against life-threatening diseases, and grow into healthier adults.

“Let us renew our dedication to creating a better environment that empowers mothers with the knowledge and ability to breastfeed in all settings, from the moment of the child’s birth in the health facility to the family home and the mother’s workplace,” he said.

“In doing so, all children can get the best start in life, and we lay the foundation for Cambodia’s future generations to thrive.”

Females made up 47.1 per cent of the total labour force in Cambodia in 2022, yet paid maternity leave in the country is currently only 90 days, which is shorter than the minimum ILO recommendation of 18 weeks (126 days).

Global estimates show that the lives of about 820,000 children would be saved every year if breastfeeding were scaled up to near universal levels.

Breastfeeding also supports a child’s learning, and prevents obesity and chronic diseases later in life.

Through health and nutrition programmes, World Vision in Cambodia works with health facilities, parents or caregivers, and community representatives to promote breastfeeding in Cambodia, its technical lead for integrated nutrition Grana Pu Selvi said.

“Breastfeeding is a shared responsibility, and it needs support from all parts of society. We urge everyone to invest in breastfeeding for a better and more sustainable Cambodia,” she added.


UNICEF and their partners are urging stakeholders to create an amenable environment for communities, families and parents to support breastfeeding and for mothers to breastfeed.

They suggested several efforts that should be put in place, like the enforcement of Sub-Decree 133 on the marketing of BMSs and other products that could undermine breastfeeding. This is in line with the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes.

Breastfeeding mothers should also be supported in their workplaces via paid maternity leave for at least six months, flexible working hours, lactation rooms and childcare facilities.

Additionally, skilled breastfeeding counselling and lactation support ought to be provided to mothers from the time of delivery and beyond.

In the meantime, public awareness and increasing social mobilisation on the importance of early initiation and exclusive breastfeeding through various channels should be conducted.

They also requested engagement with family members, especially fathers, grandmothers, and other caregivers, to promote breastfeeding and support mothers in making informed decisions about breastfeeding.

Government efforts

To be sure, the Ministry of Health has been carrying out various activities to encourage the best feeding practices for infants and young children, Dr Prak Sophonneary, secretary of state of the ministry, was quoted as saying.

She cited the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative and National Policy on Infant and Young Child Feeding as some of the activities conducted in the past.

“We also urge health workers to follow Sub-Decree 133, as well as protect, promote and support breastfeeding in their work.”

Meanwhile, in a bid to address the alarming drop in breastfeeding rates, SUN partners in Cambodia are supporting the government to strongly enforce existing legislation on the marketing of BMS.

They are putting in place better maternity leave provisions, improve breastfeeding counselling and support services, and strengthen public awareness of and community engagement in breastfeeding.

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