Breastfeeding rate shoots up by 357%

A third of South African children under six months old are now exclusively breastfed. This is a nearly five-fold increase over the last twenty years.* This big shift is largely thanks to the combined efforts of breastfeeding advocates, healthcare providers and government. The South African Breastmilk Reserve (SABR) in partnership with Provincial departments of Health in the Eastern Cape, Free State, Limpopo, Northern Cape and North West Province has aided thousands of mothers and babies with access to breastmilk banks and breastfeeding support.

“The dramatic increase in breastfeeding rates would not have been possible without the sustained partnership between the Department of Health (DOH), healthcare providers and organisations like the SABR,” says Daddy Matthews, Deputy Director of Nutrition at the Limpopo Department of Health (LDOH). Last year the LDOH expanded its human milk banking activities, aiming to protect, promote and support breastfeeding, by establishing the first state-of-the-art human milk banking facility in Limpopo at Mankweng Provincial Hospital. This is the first of four new public sector human milk banks proposed for rollout in Limpopo.

In 1998 the South African Demographic and Health Survey (SADHS) found that just 7% of infants under the age of six months were exclusively breastfed. The latest edition of the survey found that that proportion had increased to 32% by 2016.

Breastfeeding education

“The survey is welcome evidence that society can and will change its attitude to breastfeeding. If given the right interventions,” says Stasha Jordan, breastfeeding activist and Executive Director of the SABR. SABR is sponsored by founding partner Netcare and Discovery.

Since its inception in 2003, the SABR has set up, operated and handed over 51 human milk banks. They serve over 100 hospitals throughout South Africa. These banks provide much-needed breastmilk to both premature babies of mothers who have difficulty initiating lactation, and orphaned babies. The human milk banking initiative, coupled with the implementation of the ‘Mother and Baby Friendly Health Initiative’ of the NDOH, have contributed to the increase in breastfeeding rates for infants under six months old.

“We are lucky to have great partners in the Provincial and National Departments of Health, Discovery, and Netcare. We’ve helped save thousands of premature and very-low-birth-weight infants in NICUs around the country. We promote exclusive breastfeeding for all children,” explains Jordan.

Breastfeeding Featured

“As positive as the results of the SADHS are, we still have a long way to go,” says Matthews. “To meet the Sustainable Development Goals for 2025, exclusive breastfeeding rates of infants up to 6mo need to increase to 50%.  More human milk banks means babies without access to their mothers’ milk can still be fed breastmilk.”

“We should see these results as a call to redouble our efforts,” urges Jordan. “There is no question that breastfeeding gives babies their best possible start to life. We must educate and support mothers. We must enable them to breastfeed. This will grow food security for children in Africa and decrease infant mortality and morbidity rates,” she continued.

“To continue this positive trend, we need more active and widespread support from business and civil society. For example, it is ‘taboo’ to breastfeed in public. Workplaces don’t adequately support breastfeeding mothers. All sectors of our society must work together if we are to reach our goal.,” says Matthews.

To get involved and alleviate the challenges faced by the South African Breastmilk Reserve (SABR), including low breastfeeding rates in South Africa, sourcing donor mothers and funding for the operation of the milk banks, please visit or call 011 482 1920 or e-mail:


* South Africa Demographic and Health Survey 2016, Stats SA

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