World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated every year from August 1-7 to encourage breastfeeding and improve the health of babies around the world. The celebration provides wonderful opportunity of refreshing knowledge or setting agenda for nursing mothers on breastfeeding for a whole week.
First celebrated in 1992 by World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), World Breastfeeding Week is now observed in over 120 countries by UNICEF, WHO and their partners to spread awareness about benefits of breast milk and exclusive breastfeeding as well as factors that could promote or hinder exclusive breastfeeding by nursing mothers and recommendations of way forward.
The question of exclusive breastfeeding as the best way to provide infants with the nutrients they need has been a subject of several studies. Exclusive breastfeeding by definition is giving the baby only breast milk from birth until 6 months of age. It means the child will not be giving water or herbal concoction for a whole six months. Exclusive breastfeeding is universally recognized as the most cost effective, high impact preventive intervention that promotes the health of mothers and babies while reducing health care costs for government and families.
According to United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), it is described as the cornerstone of care for childhood development and the gold standard of infant feeding as it provides all the nutrients that a child needs for the first six months of life. Breast milk continues to provide essential nutrients for childhood development up to two years.
The theme of 2018 week, ‘Breastfeeding: Foundation for Life’’ is very fitting as breastfeeding especially exclusive breastfeeding is a win-win for all – baby, mother, family and society. Breastfeeding improves the survival, health, and development of all children. It saves women’s lives and contributes to human capital development. These benefits are irrespective of where you live and your economic status.
Breast milk contains the entire nutrient that an infant needs for the first six months of life. It also contains antibodies that help the baby fight off infection. Breastfeeding lowers the baby’s risk to allergies such as asthma. Babies who are exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of their lives have lower risk of respiratory infection, sudden infant death syndrome and fewer bouts of diarrhea. Breastfeeding also protect the babies from adult on set of chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes mellitus. Breastfeeding also reduces ill health in children, improves their educational potential and probably their earnings as adults.
The benefits of breastfeeding for the mother include protection against breast and ovarian cancers, against hip fracture later in life and postmenopausal cardiovascular disease (the longer mothers breastfeed, the greater their protection against breast and ovarian cancer, and hip fractures). For this, mothers are encouraged to breastfeed for up to two years and beyond with addition of complementary foods from the 6th month.
Exclusive breastfeeding also helps to bring about bonding of baby and mother and helps delays a new pregnancy. It also boosts the child’s Intelligent Quotient (IQ) and lowers his or her tendency of developing into a violent adult. The findings from WHO and partners estimate that global economic losses from lower cognition associated with not breastfeeding reached more than US$ 300 billion in 2012, equivalent to 0.49 per cent of the world’s gross national income.
Yet, worldwide, there are still low levels of optimal breastfeeding. Very low exclusive breastfeeding rate has persisted among mothers in Nigeria with the National rate at 25% in 2014 (National Nutrition and Health Survey, 2014). This rate varies across the geopolitical zones with the lowest rate in the North West at 10% and highest rate in the South West at 39%. The rates in other regions are South East 18%, North East 22%, South South 31%, and North Central 32%.
Top on the findings of factors that cause this is that women in the workplace often did not have enough maternal protection from their employers. There are also factors of hormonal challenges, lack of family support, societal influence, influence of extended families and social status. This brings to the fore the question of maternity leave: Should maternity leave be six months on national scale?
Sincerely, this is very desirable as it will support the mother practice exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of the baby’s life. One of the steps to successful exclusive breastfeeding includes allowing mothers and infants remain together 24 hours a day. This is to enable the mother breastfeed the baby on demand whenever the baby wants to breastfeed. A six months leave will provide ample opportunity for the practice of exclusive breastfeeding.
Lagos State has already implemented this and others can take a cue from the Lagos example. This is especially important as most establishments in Nigeria do not make any provisions for crèches where breastfeeding mothers can bring their babies so that the babies are close enough for the mothers to take breastfeeding breaks and breastfeed their infants.
Another important issue is how soon mothers are expected to breastfeed their babies. Mothers are expected to put the baby to the breast within 30 minutes of delivery and to give the baby the first milk which is known as colostrum. This milk is thick and yellow, rich in antibodies and vitamin A which protect the baby against allergy and infection. It is also contains growth factors which helps the intestine to mature and reduce intolerance. It has purgative properties that help to clear the meconium (the greenish stool passed by babies).
After the first feed, babies are to be breastfed on demand that is whenever the baby shows signs of hunger day and night. This is usually about 8 times during the day and 4 times at night but there should be no limit this is just a guide.
To boost exclusive breastfeeding, the Global Breastfeeding Advocacy Initiative, led by UNICEF and WHO in collaboration with international partners, are providing leadership to improve breastfeeding rates. WHO and UNICEF have created a Network for Global Monitoring and Support for Implementation of the International Code (NetCode) with the purpose of strengthening capacity for Code monitoring, adherence and implementation.
Beyond combating marketing of breast-milk substitutes, there is need to invest in policies and programmes that support women’s breastfeeding. Supportive health-care systems, adequate maternity leave entitlements, workplace interventions, counselling and educational programmes can all help to improve breastfeeding rates.
Breastfeeding has also been identified as a high-impact intervention to achieve the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health (2016-2030), which was launched alongside the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a road map for ending preventable deaths in a generation. Breastfeeding is important to child survival in all settings, but also to ensuring that children can thrive and reach their full cognitive and developmental potentials throughout their lives.
This year’s World Breastfeeding Week should help us to recommit to doing more to help every child, everywhere, realize the life saving benefits of breastfeeding, no matter where they live.
Musbau is of Features Unit, Lagos State Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja