September 15, 2017

Dr. Alison Stuebe

Dr. Alison Stuebe

In a new study, researchers led by Alison Stuebe, MD, associate professor of maternal and child health at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, have created an online calculator to estimate the impact of changes in breastfeeding rates on population health. The research was published online Sept. 15 in the journal Breastfeeding Medicine.

“Breastfeeding is good for mother and good for babies,” said Stuebe, who also is Distinguished Scholar of Infant and Young Child Feeding at the Gillings School’s Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute and associate professor of maternal-fetal medicine in the UNC School of Medicine’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “We found that even modest changes [in breastfeeding practices] would be expected to reduce ear infections, gastrointestinal illnesses and child obesity.”

Leveraging results from the research team’s 2016 study on the costs of suboptimal breastfeeding, which appeared in Maternal and Child Nutrition, the calculator allows users to select a population and specify a future breastfeeding rate to generate a report on the expected impact on five maternal and nine child diseases.

The calculator currently uses Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data released in 2012, at a time when 80 percent of mothers initiated breastfeeding, and 29.2 percent continued through 12 months. The 2014 data, released earlier this month, found that 82.5 percent of mothers initiated, and 33.7 percent continued through 12 months.

Applying these data for the U.S. population, the calculator estimates rising breastfeeding rates prevented 57,581 ear infections, 159,385 episodes of gastroenteritis and 7,538 cases of child obesity.

Users can model the entire U.S. population, or specify any of the 50 states or the District of Columbia.

“This calculator will be a game-changer for people making policy on maternal and child health and paid family leave,” said Melissa Bartick, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Cambridge Health Alliance and Harvard Medical School and lead author of the team’s original cost study.

The calculator estimates the impact of differences in breastfeeding rates in a modeled population of women followed from age 15 to age 70 and the children they bear, based on current U.S. patterns of childbearing and very low-birth-weight births, as well as current rates of maternal and child diseases associated with breastfeeding.

“All models rest on a set of assumptions,” Stuebe said. “Our goal was to provide policy makers and advocates with an approximation of the return on investment for interventions that enable women to breastfeed.”

This article, by Courtney Mitchell, first appeared on the UNC School of Medicine website. The research was funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in a grant to Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard teaching institution. The calculator is hosted online by the United States Breastfeeding Committee.


Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or

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