Breastfeeding provides babies the best start in life. It is a baby’s best source of nutrition, bolstering brain development with lifelong benefits for the mother and the baby. It is extremely critical for a child's growth and development and contributes significantly to the child's sense of security and bonding with the mother. And what better time to write about this than World Breastfeeding Week which is celebrated globally in the first week of August.
Early initiation of breastfeeding within one hour of birth, exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months, introduction of nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods at 6 months together with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond offer a powerful line of defense against infection and malnutrition and boosters brain development in a child.
In contrast, children who are not fully or partially breastfed have a higher risk of diarrhea and other infections, are more likely to suffer from malnutrition and have increased risk of death in their infancy.
THE NECTAR OF LIFE
Breastmilk is rich in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that help in the healthy growth of a child. Colostrum, the thick yellowish milk mothers produce just after birth, is the ideal nourishment for a new-born: full of nutrients and rich in antibodies, it is also the baby's first vaccine.
It is well-known that breastfeeding reduces the risk of certain infections and diseases in children, including ear infections, asthma, lower respiratory infections, diarrhoea and vomiting, childhood obesity, and sudden infant death syndrome, among others. Further, breastfeeding is associated with an IQ increase of child by 3 to 4 points.
Breastfeeding not only benefits infants but their mothers as well. It speeds up mothers’ recovery from childbirth, lowers their risk of certain breast and ovarian cancers and type 2 diabetes, and helps them maintain birth spacing.
Besides benefit to mother and child, breastfeeding benefits thefamily and society as well. Breastfeeding saves expenses on baby food and cost of health care due to illness. Study shows that every US$1 invested in breastfeeding generates an estimated US$35 in economic returns.
Breastfeeding helps to prevent malnutrition in all forms, ensures food security for children even at time of crises. Breast milk is a natural, renewable, and sustainable resource, which does not generate waste nor pollution.
STRENGTHENING THE BOND
The significance of breastfeeding can be understood by the fact that a new-born’s survival is dependent on early breastfeeding and initiation and skin-to-skin contact soon after birth.
Skin-to-skin contact is essentially bringing the baby into direct contact with the mother's skin to assist them in finding and attaching to the breast. This also raises the mother's levels of oxytocin, a hormone that facilitates the production of breast milk and helps strengthen the bond between a mother and her child.
ACHIEVEMENTS AND MISSED OPPORTUNITIES
Jharkhand has been successful in reducing undernutrition prevalence rate among children below 5 years between 2015-16 (NFHS 4) and NFHS 5 (2019-21).
There is nearly 22% reduction in wasting and approximately 12%reduction in stunting among children below 5 years between this period. Exclusive breastfeeding rates among children under 6 months has also improved from 65%in 2015-16 (NFHS 4) to 76% in 2019-21 (NFHS 5).
Now around 76% women deliver in health facilities as compared to 62% in 2015-16. Though there is improvement in some areas, there are a few missed opportunities too.
Although 3 in 4 women deliver in health facilities, only 1 in 5 babies could get breastmilk within 1 hour. Around the age of 6 months, an infant’s need for energy and nutrients starts to exceed what is provided by breast milk, and complementary foods are necessary to meet those needs. However, in Jharkhand 61% of children aged 6–8 months do not get solid/semi-solid food and breastmilk.
But why is it so? Lack of knowledge, cultural practices offeeding other food to new-borns, and shortfalls in the quality of care provided to mothers and new-borns are some of the factors contributing to the lack of early breastfeeding initiation after birth.
In the initial days after giving birth, many new mothers also struggle to learn how to breastfeed. Both mothers and babies need to practice breastfeeding over time. Successful breastfeeding procedures call for supportive surroundings, and expert instruction. Mothers need support from their families, healthcare professionals, employers, and governments to give their children the best possible start in life.
Healthcare professionals, such as counsellors, nurses, and doctors, are crucial in helping mothers and kids breastfeed. Women need to receive accurate information, counselling, and support at home, in medical facilities, and at work so that they can confidently breastfeed wherever needed. We must therefore foster an enabling environment and assist them both at home and at work.
Fathers have an extremely important role to play in this as well. They can help mothers in the early initiation of breastfeeding, and support mother and the baby to sustain breastfeeding. Furthermore, all health facilities must be equipped to support breastfeeding and provide optimal care to mothers and new-borns.
Breastfeeding is a present from a mother to herself, her child, and the world. While it may not always be easy, it is always worth it.
Note:The author is the Chief of Field Office for UNICEF Jharkhand.