In a nation where the news cycle is often filled with women being ejected from restaurants or stores for breastfeeding publicly, epidemiology professor Rafael Pérez-Escamilla, and his colleagues at the Yale School of Public Health are working to increase the effectiveness of programs that promote breastfeeding worldwide.

The Family Larsson-Rosenquist Foundation of Zug, Switzerland, an organization founded in 2013 focused on promoting breastfeeding, granted YSPH $680,000 last Tuesday to develop the Breastfeeding Friendly Country Index — a metric that will measure how strongly a country’s policies support and encourage breastfeeding, how positively breastfeeding is portrayed in the country’s media and how well breastfeeding promotions are coordinated within the government, Pérez-Escamilla said.

According to Irene Dörig, the Larsson-Rosenquist Foundation’s manager of marketing and communications, Yale was awarded the grant due to a personal connection between Pérez-Escamilla and Janet Prince, the foundation’s program manager. When the foundation learned of Yale’s project, they noted that its goals perfectly matched their own, and decided to support it financially, Dörig said in a Tuesday email to the News.

Yale’s project fills a void, Dörig said. It will provide a certified method to determine the effectiveness of different breastfeeding promotion programs and to compare programs worldwide, she added.

“The project’s long-term objective is to identify concrete measures a country can take to sustainably increase its breastfeeding rates,” Dörig said. “By funding such a great project, we believe we can contribute to helping make breastfeeding a matter of course worldwide — and thereby help improve public health globally.”

Though there has been an increase in the percentage of mothers in the United States who choose to breastfeed — almost 80 percent of babies born in America are now breastfed — mothers do not sustain breastfeeding for an adequate period of time, Pérez-Escamilla said. Babies should be breastfed exclusively for the first six months of life, and for up to three years after, he added. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, infants should be breastfed exclusively for six months because it supports “optimal growth and development” and “provides continuing protection against diarrhea and respiratory tract infection.”

In the United States, breastfeeding is not seen as a societal norm, though there are some countries — notably Brazil and Scandinavian countries — where breastfeeding is much more accepted, Pérez-Escamilla said. He noted that positive publicity from celebrity mothers who breastfeed has proved important in making public breastfeeding more common.

“For the vast majority of women and babies, it is absolutely the best option when starting life to breastfeed,” Pérez-Escamilla said. He did acknowledge a few instances in which the choice to breastfeed might be more complicated, for example, in the case of HIV-positive mothers. But for healthy mothers and babies, breastfeeding is always the best option, Pérez-Escamilla said. Breastfed babies gain protection from gastrointestinal and ear infections, and their risk for obesity is lowered, he added. Furthermore, babies who are breastfed end up being more intelligent than formula-fed babies, according to Pérez-Escamilla. Mothers, too, gain benefits from breastfeeding — their risk for ovarian and breast cancer is reduced, as is their risk for diabetes, Pérez-Escamilla added.

The YSPH will host a global breastfeeding summit at the end of October. Invited experts include representatives from WHO, UNICEF, the Gates Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development.