Every woman looks forward to the joy of motherhood (minus the labour pain of course!). Indeed, most but not all, joyfully embrace the task of nourishing their God-given precious gift. Breastfeeding can be such a big deal, especially for first-time mothers who have to adjust to their new role, learn the technique (it’s beyond just placing the breast in your baby’s mouth), cope with sleepless nights etc. However, I can tell you that all these are nothing compared to the fulfilment and bonding that comes with breastfeeding your baby, and doing that exclusively.
Exclusive breastfeeding means that an infant receives only breast milk with no additional foods or liquids, not even water. The benefits of exclusive breastfeeding on child survival, growth, and development are well documented. Moreso, exclusive breastfeeding provides health benefits for mothers.
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Impact on neonatal and infant survival and health
Exclusive breastfeeding is the single most effective intervention for preventing child deaths. Yet, less than 40 per cent of infants under 6 months old receive these benefits. Diarrhoea and pneumonia are the leading causes of death among infants in developing countries. Infants under 2 months old who are not breastfed are six times more likely to die from diarrhoea or acute respiratory infections than those who are breastfed. Approximately 1.3 million deaths could be prevented each year if exclusive breastfeeding rates increased to 90 per cent. Read more on the impact of early and exclusive breastfeeding on neonatal mortality.
Protects against illness
Breastmilk, especially the first yellow thick milk called colostrum, contains anti-bacterial and anti-viral agents and high levels of vitamin A. They protect infants against disease.
Promotes recovery of the sick child
Breast-feeding provides nutritious, easily digestible food when a sick child loses his or her appetite for other foods. Continued breastfeeding during diarrhoea reduces dehydration, the severity and duration of diarrhoea, and the risk of malnutrition.
Impact on Child Nutrition
Provides total food security
Breastmilk is a hygienic source of food with the right amount of energy. It contains protein, fat, vitamins, and other nutrients for infants in the first six months. It cannot be duplicated. Breastmilk is the only safe and reliable source of food for infants in an emergency.
Meets all water requirements
Breastmilk is 88 per cent water. Studies show that healthy, exclusively breastfed infants under 6 months old do not need additional fluids, even in countries with extremely high temperatures and low humidity. Offering water before 6 months of age reduces breastmilk intake, interferes with full absorption of breastmilk nutrients, and increases the risk of illness from contaminated water and feeding bottles.
Impact on Child Development
Optimizes a child’s physical and mental growth and development
Infants fed breastmilk show higher developmental scores as toddlers and higher IQs as children than those who are not fed breastmilk. As such, breastmilk supplies key nutrients that are critical for health, growth, and development.
Benefits for Women
Benefits maternal health
Breastfeeding reduces the mother’s risk of fatal postpartum haemorrhage and premenopausal breast and ovarian cancer. Frequent and exclusive breastfeeding contributes to a delay in the return of fertility and helps protect women against anaemia by conserving iron.
Bonds mother and child
Breastfeeding provides frequent interaction between mother and infant. It also fosters emotional bonds, a sense of security, and stimuli to the baby’s developing brain.
Economic and Environmental Benefits
Families save money that would have been spent to treat illnesses due to contaminated and inadequate breast milk substitutes. Exclusive breastfeeding eliminates dependence on costly breast milk substitutes, feeding equipment, and fuel for preparation.
Protects the environment
Breast milk is a naturally renewable, sustainable resource that requires no fuel for preparation, packaging, shipping, or disposal.
Promoting and Supporting Exclusive Breastfeeding
Despite its many benefits, many women do not breastfeed exclusively. Obstacles to exclusive breast-feeding can be overcome in the following ways:
Prevent and treat early problems
Most breastfeeding problems occur in the first 2 weeks of life. These problems include cracked nipples, engorgement, and mastitis. All too often, these lead to very early infant supplementation and abandonment of exclusive breastfeeding. Proper positioning and attachment of the baby to the breast and frequent breast-feedings can prevent these problems. Support to the mother for early initiation is easy to provide via peer support networks and has been effective at prolonging exclusive breastfeeding.
Restrict commercial pressures
Aggressive marketing of infant formula often gives new mothers and families the impression that human milk is less modern and thus less healthy for infants than infant formula. Enforced restrictions on the marketing of infant formula are part of efforts to support and prolong exclusive breastfeeding.
Provide timely and accurate information
Many women and family members are unaware of the benefits of colostrum and exclusive breastfeeding. Women must sort through myths, misinformation, and mixed messages about breastfeeding. Ensuring that women receive complete, accurate, timely, and consistent information is fundamental for any program promoting exclusive breastfeeding.
Address social barriers
Attitudes that undervalue breastfeeding discourage women from it. These attitudes may be communicated in the media and reflected in the advice of relatives and friends. Successful efforts to promote good feeding practices focus not only on the mother but on those who influence her feeding decisions, such as her doctor, mother-in-law, and husband.
Create supportive work environments
Few mothers are provided with paid maternity leave or time and a private place to breastfeed or express their breastmilk. Legislation around maternity leave and policies that provide time, space, and support for breastfeeding in the workplace could reduce one of the barriers to exclusive breastfeeding.
Establish good practices in health facilities
Distribution of free samples of infant formula, the use of glucose water, and separation of mother from newborn are obstacles to the establishment of good feeding in health services. Adopting the Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative’s “Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding” and enhancing the skills of health care providers to support exclusive breastfeeding would help to ensure the best start for infants.
Despite these challenges, I celebrate every woman who makes the very important choice of exclusive breastfeeding. On behalf of every child who has nestled at his mother’s breast and those yet unborn, I say thank you to our mothers. Keep the Exclusive Breastfeeding Flag flying!