The act of breastfeeding (also referred to as ‘nursing’) provides newborns and infants access to breastmilk – something the World Health Organization (WHO) refers to as ‘The ideal food for infants’ owing to its safe, clean and antibody rich properties. The WHO describes breastfeeding as one of the most efficient ways to ensure immediate survival and long term good health of a newborn, and recommends initiating breastfeeding within the first hour of the birth of a child. Exclusive breastfeeding (which refers to the practise of ensuring that an infant receives only breast milk - to the exclusion of all other liquids and solids including water) is recommended for up to six months.
Ground realities in countries and communities around the world don’t honour that mandate, sadly. Globally, nearly 2 out of 3 infants are not exclusively breastfed for 6 months – which is the recommended period. In the Indian context, Findings by the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) suggests a significant decline in the number of children (under three years of age) who have been breastfed within one hour of birth. The picture is not all bad, though. Improvements have been noticed in the domain of ‘exclusive breastfeeding’ across 16 states and Union Territories. Globally, exclusive breastfeeding has risen 50%.
Plenty more needs to be done. After all, research suggests that scaling up breastfeeding (to near universal levels) could save the lives of about 8,20,000 children annually. That’s because breastfeeding effectively acts as the baby’s first vaccine, adding a vital layer of protection against malnutrition and various diseases and illnesses. Not only that. Both the UNICEF and the WHO agree that children who are breastfed carry an indisputable edge (over counterparts who have not been breastfed) in various aspects of life – such as intelligence tests, obesity & fitness and probability of becoming diabetic. And it’s not just children. Women who breastfeed reap the benefits of the exercise equally, and have reduced risk of ovarian and breast cancer. Whichever way you look at it, there are multiple reasons why we must make breastfeeding ‘mainstream’ again.
World Breastfeeding Week is observed across over 120 countries every year from the 1st to the 7th of August. The Week has its origins in 1979 when the WHO started probing the impact on infants of baby foods manufactured by various brands (some of whom, purportedly, had profits over nutrition in mind). It was soon noticed that these products were interfering in critical breastfeeding procedures in hospitals, and that powdered milk formula, specifically, had a detrimental impact on the health of children. The Innocenti Declaration, signed in 1990, marked a milestone in the global endeavour to revive breastfeeding. In 2018, a World Health Assembly resolution endorsed World Breastfeeding Week as significant to building awareness on the topic. Today, the World Breastfeeding Week is mapped with various angles and agenda’s of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The priorities and commitments include…
1) Ensuring the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes – established to protect mothers from aggressive marketing practices by the baby food industry – is fully implemented by governments, health workers and industry.
2) Ensuring health care workers have the resources and information they need to effectively support mothers to breastfeed, including through global efforts such as the Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative, and guidelines on breastfeeding counselling.
3) Ensuring employers allow women the time and space they need to breastfeed; including paid parental leave with longer maternity leave; safe places for breastfeeding in the workplace; access to affordable and good-quality childcare; and universal child benefits and adequate wages.
It is important to separate facts and myths when it comes to breastfeeding during COVID-19. According to the WHO, "transmission of active Covid-19 through breast milk and breastfeeding has not been detected to date. There is no reason to avoid or stop breastfeeding.” To this end, policy think tank and change platform Voice of Healthcare has been hosting a panel discussion with leading minds in the space. You can explore and follow it here https://app.glueup.com/event/world-breastfeeding-week-40809/
The year 2021 started out with governments, donors, civil society and the private sector coming together to launch the Nutrition for Growth Year of Action. It marks a significant window of opportunity for every stakeholder in the space to transform mindsets and practises with the goal of bringing child malnutrition under control.
Breastfeeding is key to achieving this goal.
*This story is published by VOH team*