Reflecting on importance of breastfeeding

MARTIN MZUMARA, Lusaka
AS WE end the World Breastfeeding Week, there is need to reinforce and remind ourselves of the health and economic benefits of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is so phenomenal to health and economics as reflected in this quote, “If breastfeeding did not already exist, someone who invented it today would deserve a dual Nobel Prize in medicine and economics.” – World Bank Vice-president of human development, Keith Hansen.
This article will discuss both health and economic benefits of breastfeeding. Using a health lens, breastfeeding has the following benefits:
Nutritional status: Breast milk provides adequate nutrition for babies in the first six months. It provides all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals a baby needs for growth and development for the first six months, and no other liquids or food are needed. Furthermore, breast milk contains digestive enzymes which breast milk substitutes do not contain, and therefore, the baby easily digests and efficiently uses the breast milk.
Adequate breastfeeding helps prevent growth faltering and stunting (short for age indicating chronic undernutrition), particularly as it reduces the risk of illnesses. Infections are important determinants of stunting in children. Breastfeeding protects against weight loss due to diarrhoea, and children exclusively breastfed are less likely to be stunted. It is important to note that breastfed children may still be stunted if they do not receive an adequate quantity and quality of complementary foods from the age of six months onwards.
Protection from illnesses: Breast milk has antibodies from the mother that help prevent infections in babies. It is important for lactating mothers and caregivers to be aware that breast milk substitutes do not contain antibodies. Feeding of colostrum, which is the first milk women produce in the few days after birth, is very important for the baby. Colostrum is very rich in antibodies and white blood cells that protect babies against infections.
Survival benefits: Optimal breastfeeding practices in the first two years of life, especially exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, can have the single largest impact on child survival of all preventive interventions, with the potential to prevent 12-13 percent of all under-five deaths. Furthermore, early initiation of breastfeeding (within first hour) contributes to reducing deaths in newborn babies.
Breastfed children have at least 14 times greater chance of survival in the early months than non-breastfed children. In the first 6 months of life, non-breastfed infants are more than 14 times more likely to die from all causes, 10 times more likely to die from diarrhoea and 15 times more likely to die from acute respiratory infection – two major child killers. During the first six months, the rates of infections are lower for exclusively breastfed than for partially breastfed infants. Diarrhoea occurrence and deaths are higher among non-breastfed babies.
Breastfeeding protects infants against diarrhoea through two ways:
1) Reduced risk of bacterial infection from contaminated formula, other liquids and complementary foods
2) The transfer of antibodies from the mother via breast milk.
Benefits of continued breastfeeding from 6 months to 2 years include a reduced risk of all-cause mortality and reduced diarrhoea incidence.
Reduced risk of chronic conditions: Breastfeeding lowers the risk of chronic conditions later in life compared to artificially-fed babies. Studies have found that children who artificially fed in very early stages of life have increased risk of allergies, asthma, overweight and obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and high cholesterol level, childhood leukemia and breast cancer later in life.
Benefits for intellectual and motor development
Children who are breastfed have been found to perform better on tests of cognitive/intellectual and motor development, as well as academic outcomes than children who are not breastfed. Infants fed breast milk tend to have higher Intelligence Quotient scores. The unique physical contact between mother and baby provided during breastfeeding helps to provide psychosocial stimulation and bonding that may have developmental benefits.
Benefits for maternal health: Initiation of breastfeeding immediately after delivery helps to contract the uterus, expel the placenta, and reduce bleeding. Breastfeeding may also lead to a more rapid return to pre-pregnancy weight. Exclusive breastfeeding may also delay the return of fertility, thus reducing exposure to maternal health risks associated with short birth intervals. In the longer term, mothers who breastfeed tend to be at lower risk of premenopausal breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
In addition to health benefits highlighted above, breastfeeding also has some economic benefits, which could benefit families and society at large. Someone out there may be pondering what these economic benefits of breastfeeding are.
Economic benefits
Apart from being the safest and healthiest infant feeding method, breastfeeding is also the least expensive. For many households, the high cost of breast milk substitutes, feeding and sterilising equipment, fuel, represents a substantial drain on scarce household resources. Added to this are the cost of health care for the sick baby due to inappropriate feeding methods. When infant illness cause mothers to miss work, employers and the economy are also affected.
Even as the World Breastfeeding Week comes to an end, we should always remember that, ‘‘for while “breast milk is best” for lifelong health, it is also excellent economics. Breastfeeding is a child’s first inoculation against death, diseases, and poverty, but also their most enduring investment in physical, cognitive, and social capacity, says Keith Hansen
This article is written by the Nutrition Association of Zambia.
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