New Telegraph

Breast milk: Critical start to life

It is said that breast milk promotes sensory and cognitive development, and protects the infant against infectious and chronic diseases. To enable mothers to establish and sustain exclusive breastfeeding for six months, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF recommend an initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour of life. Breast, which is the ‘first kitchen’ for the baby’s meal, remains a therapy for attacking infant diseases. As such, experts insist, babies should not be deprived of this nature’s take away food, reports ISIOMA MADIKE

Breast milk, according to UNICEF, is the best source of nutrition for every child. The initiation of breastfeeding in the first hour of birth and exclusive breastfeeding in the following six months, it says, strengthens a child’s immunity against most childhood diseases. UNICEF added: “It is easily digested – no constipation, diarrhea or stomach upset. Babies have healthier weights as they grow.”

It is also said that breastfed babies score higher in IQ tests. Despite the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding, about 56 per cent of the world’s children are said not to enjoy exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of life. Poor awareness of the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding however, is among the factors responsible for the low adoption of Exclusive Breast Feeding (EBF) in the first six months of life by most mothers.

The World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) is celebrated every year to raise awareness of the importance of breastfeeding for children’s health. The theme for this year’s WBW is: “Step up for Breastfeeding; Educate and Support.” The theme focuses on the roles of warm chain actors in stimulating the adoption of EBF.

It draws attention to the need to strengthen the capacity of these actors for the continued protection and promotion of EBF. It’s more critical than ever to begin life as a newborn being breastfed, according to the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Ghebreyesus, and the Executive Director of UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Catherine Russell, who issued a joint statement to mark the start of World Breastfeeding Week, which was celebrated on August 1 through 7.

They pointed out that global crises, supply chain shocks, and insecurity threaten the health and nutrition of millions of babies and children like never before. UNICEF and WHO also used the World Breastfeeding Week, under its theme to call on governments to allocate increased resources to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding policies and programmes, especially for the most vulnerable families living in emergency settings. According to the UN, fewer than half of all newborns are breastfed in the first hour of life, leaving them more vulnerable to disease and death. And only 44 per cent of infants are exclusively breastfed in the first six months of life, short of the WHO run World Health Assembly’s target, of 50 per cent by 2025.

“Protecting, promoting, and supporting breastfeeding is more important than ever, not just for protecting our planet as the ultimate natural, sustainable, first food system, but also for the survival, growth, and development of millions of infants”, said Tedros and Ms. Russell.

Oluwatoyin Mordi, who lives in Otuke Village in Sango Ota, Ogun State, has seen many of her community’s children suffer from malnutrition, some of them dying as a result. The 32-year-old feels fortunate that she didn’t lose any of her own. She fed two of her babies with water as well as breast milk during the first six months of their lives, but only because she didn’t know other better options. “I didn’t know I should have given them only breast milk at that age. “I only learnt that later at the Ifako General Hospital, Agege, Lagos, where I had gone to see a friend, who gave birth to a baby at the health centre in February.

I wish I knew what I now know then,” she explained with regret etched into her voice. Amaka Chibuzor, 36, is also a mother of two young children. Her first baby was often sick and used to cry through the night, but after learning about better breastfeeding practices, Chibuzor changed the way she feeds her second baby, now four months old and in good health. She said: “With this child, I can sleep well because he is not ill.

I breast-fed him immediately after birth and had given him no other foods thus far. Even when he is ill I still breastfeed him because now I know it is important.” This is a sharp contrast to Clara’s first experience with motherhood when she fed her baby boiled sugar, water, and butter, which made him ill often. This was due to misconception and lack of awareness that breast milk is a complete meal for an infant.

“I often took him to the primary health centre at Alapere-Ketu, Lagos, where I live, with abdominal cramping, diarrhea and vomiting. The health bills were always making me broke,” she recalled. Relieved and smiling, another woman, who preferred to be identified simply as Ofunne, recounted the ordeal she had to go through a few years back in her Egbeda, Lagos, abode. Her youngest child, Emmanuel, unexpectedly fell ill and Ofunne had no idea what to do. “He is smiling and being playful now that he is cured. You should have seen him when I took him to the hospital.

He could not eat and his temperature was very high and he looked frail,” she said. For almost a week, then one-yearold Emmanuel was unwell and had a very high fever. With each passing day, he became weaker and a neighbour advised his mother to seek treatment at a primary health care facility in their neighbourhood, where integrated nutrition services were provided.

“I was very worried. I had never seen this before and my other child had never suffered from this disease. Things were tough and I didn’t know whether the fact that we were struggling to find enough food had any thing to do with it,” she told Saturday Telegraph. Mothers, in most communities, according to investigation, do not breastfeed their children well, chiefly because of ignorance or lack of nutrients in their own bodies. They often rely on contaminated water, making their children prone to illnesses like diarrhea, which prevents nutrient absorption. Incidentally, many of these families live on less than $1 a day, which can hardly afford anything beyond local foods like corn mill (tuwo) in the North and palp (akamu) in the South.

These foods are devoid of much-needed protein and other nutrients. For the children, their mothers’ plans mean little unless they put enough of the right food in their stomachs. Almost as shocking as Nigeria’s high prevalence of child malnutrition is the country’s failure to reduce it. “It is a national shame.

Child nutrition is a marker of the many things that are not going right for the masses,” said a nutritionist, who identified himself simply as Maduegbune. Sadly, about three in five babies, according to global statistics, are not so lucky and are not breastfed in the first hour of life, despite the fact that breastfeeding within an hour after birth is critical for saving newborn lives. Perhaps, this may be the reason UNICEF often emphasises that breastfeeding gives the best and the only nutrition babies need in their first six months of life. It helps them, according to UNICEF, to prevent illnesses and boost their brain development. It is also said to be an integral part of the reproductive process with important implications for the health of mothers.

The first 1,000 days of a child’s life, according to nutrition experts, offers a unique window of opportunity for preventing under nutrition and its consequences. But due to poor adherence, malnutrition, which is a direct or underlying cause of 45 per cent of all deaths of under-five children, remains high, especially in Nigeria.

UNICEF also said that breast milk, which is the natural first food for babies, provides all the energy and nutrients that the infant needs for the first months of life, and it continues to provide up to half or more of a child’s nutritional needs during the second half of the first year, and up to one-third during the second year of life “It contributes to the health and wellbeing of mothers; and helps to space children, reduces the risk of ovarian and breast cancers,” the world health body said. However, while breastfeeding is a natural act, it is also a learned behaviour.

An extensive body of research has demonstrated that mothers and other caregivers require active support for establishing and sustaining appropriate breastfeeding practices. This may be the reason WHO and UNICEF launched the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative in 1992, to strengthen maternity practices to support breastfeeding. However, breastfeeding policy tends to be an emotive issue. Breastfeeding provides natural antibodies that help babies resist illnesses such as ear infections. It’s usually more easily digested, according to medical experts, than formula. So, breastfed babies, they say, are often less constipated and gassy.

It is also believed to benefit infants because, according to nutritionists, breast milk contains the ideal mix of nutrients for babies, as it contains factors which promote development of the infant’s gut and immune system and which prevent pathogen invasion, and prevents intake of pathogens in food or water. It has been shown to enhance bonding with their mothers. “Breastfeeding usually plays an integral role in forming the deep attachment between mother and baby. Bottle-feeding mothers may not be securely attached to their babies in a like manner. Newborns have a strong sense of smell and know the unique scent of breast milk.

“That is why a baby will turn his or her head to the mother when he or she is hungry. They can see up close and personal. They are born extremely nearsighted, which means they can only see things about eight to 15 inches away. “There is a well-accepted extra closeness that breastfeeding mothers experience that is both hormonal and emotional in nature. The only disadvantages for the baby in breastfeeding occur when things are not going well. For example, if there’s an inadequate supply of breast milk or an inefficient suck reflex in the baby,” said one nutritionist.

It has been said that breastfeeding has a nearly perfect mix of vitamins, protein, and fat — everything the baby needs to grow. It has equally been linked to higher IQ scores in later childhood in some studies. Breastfed infants are said to be more likely to gain the right amount of weight as they grow rather than become overweight children. Nutritionists have also said that breastfeeding plays a role in the prevention of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). When children, before the age of five, miss out on the nutrition they need it can affect them in many ways. They may be shorter for their age, perform poorly at school and have problems learning skills, which stops them from reaching their full potential. Also, if they have not received enough nutrients or if they have been ill, they will more than likely suffer from malnutrition.

A malnourished child is more prone to disease. They need food to stay alive, and to stay strong. Without proper nutrition, the immune system is not efficient, and disease enters through germs like bacteria and can attack easily. Then a cycle begins. When there is a disease, the child can easily become malnourished. Malnutrition is a dangerous condition that develops when the body does not get enough nutrients to function properly.

While stunting remains the main longterm effects of malnutrition in children. The malady can hinder a child’s ability to grow normally, leaving both height and weight well under normal when compared with children the same age. Stunted growth can be permanent, and a child may never achieve normal height or body weight if chronically malnourished. According to the “British Medical Journal,” malnutrition in children can adversely hinder brain development and intellectual capacity in the early stages of life.

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