Part of the message that is drummed into the populace as part of activities marking the Week is the fact that WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months as the best way of feeding infants, who can thereafter receive supplementary foods with continued breastfeeding up to two years of age or beyond.
The immense benefits of exclusive breastfeeding, especially as regards the survival, growth, and development of children cannot be questioned. In fact, experts say that approximately 1.3 million deaths could be prevented each year, word-wide, if exclusive breastfeeding rates increase to 90 per cent.
Exclusive breastfeeding, indeed, optimizes a children's physical and mental growth and development, and infants fed breast milk show higher developmental scores as toddlers and higher intelligence quotient (IQs) as children than those who are not fed breast milk, which supplies key nutrients that are critical for health, growth, and development.
According to both the WHO and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), breast milk is the natural first food for babies and provides all the energy and nutrients that infants need for the first six months of life. It also continues to provide up to half or more of children's nutritional needs during the second half of the first year, and up to one-third during the second year of life.
Breast milk also, very importantly, promotes sensory and cognitive development, and protects infants from infectious and chronic diseases.
Exclusive breastfeeding, which means that an infant receives only breast milk with no additional foods or liquids, not even water, reduces infant mortality due to common childhood illnesses such as ear infection; diarrhoea, which constitutes about a third of the cases of under-five deaths in Nigeria, and pneumonia, another leading cause of death among infants. It also aids quicker recovery during illness.
Breastfeeding is not only a secure way of feeding but is safe for the environment! It is, indeed, a hygienic source of food with the right amount of energy, protein, fat, vitamins, and other nutrients for infants in their first six months of life and cannot be duplicated. .
There are also numerous benefits on the part of the mother. For instance, experts say breastfeeding reduces the mother's risk of fatal postpartum haemorrhage and premenopausal breast and ovarian cancer. More so, frequent and exclusive breastfeeding contributes to a delay in the return of fertility after childbirth and helps protect women from anaemia by conserving iron.
More importantly, it provides regular interaction between mother and infant, fostering emotional bonds, a sense of security, and stimulus to the baby's developing brain.
The economic and environmental benefits of breast feeding cannot, equally, be over looked as families, for one, save money that would have been spent treating illnesses due to contaminated and inadequate breast milk substitutes.
In addition to eliminating dependence on costly breast milk substitutes that may even prove unhealthy, feeding equipment, and fuel for preparation, exclusive breast feeding in many ways protects the environment. For instance, breast milk, a natural, renewable, sustainable resource, does not require fuel for preparation, packaging, shipping, or disposal.
While breastfeeding is a natural act, it is also a learned behaviour, considering that mothers and other care givers require active support for establishing and sustaining this appropriate breastfeeding practice.
But even as exclusive breastfeeding is said to be the single most effective intervention for preventing child deaths, less than 40 per cent of infants under six months old receive its benefits.
Given this anomaly, the WHO and UNICEF launched the Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) in 1992, with the aim of strengthening maternity practices that support breastfeeding. The initiative's "10 Steps to Successful Breastfeeding" has contributed towards improving the establishment of exclusive breastfeeding world-wide.
But while improved maternity services help to increase the initiation of exclusive breastfeeding, support throughout the health system and beyond, especially for working mothers, and a healthy life style, including adequate and balanced diet for the nursing mother, is required to help sustain the practice.
For instance, problems that occur in the first two weeks of breastfeeding such as cracked nipples, engorgement and mastitis that often lead to early infant supplementation and abandonment of exclusive breast feeding, must be prevented and treated when they occur.
We also call for restriction of the marketing of infant formula, which often gives new mothers and families the impression that human milk is less modern and thus less healthy for infants.
Also, timely and accurate information on the benefits of colostrum and exclusive breastfeeding must be provided for the new mothers, while attitudes that undervalue breastfeeding must be discouraged by both the media, relatives, friends and even husbands.
Supportive work environments must be created as not all mothers are provided with paid maternity leave or time and a private place (Crèche) to breastfeed or express their breast milk.
In this light, we call on the National Assembly to formulate legislation in support of maternity leave including an increase in the period of paid maternity leave and compulsory provision of time, space, and support for breastfeeding in the workplace as this would go a long way to reduce one of the barriers to exclusive breastfeeding, especially for working mothers.
Above all, adoption of the Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative's "Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding," enhancement of the skills of health care providers to support exclusive breastfeeding and eradication of poverty, would, no doubt, help to ensure the best start for infants in the country and elsewhere in the world.
Source: Daily Champion (Lagos, Nigeria)