Nothing beats breastfeeding

It’s not that difficult to guess why the topic of breastfeeding emerges as a matter of discussion in various forums and why it is considered so important, to the extent that Breastfeeding Week is commemorated globally from August 1- 7 every year. Nepal is no exception, and Breastfeeding Week is celebrated here too, with huge enthusiasm. That importance accorded to breastfeeding is highly warranted: the research and findings regarding breastfeeding show that this simple and selfless act of commitment by a mother to her baby not only lays a solid foundation for the newborn’s survival and growth but also benefits the mother in several ways.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF recommend that a baby be initiated into breastfeeding within the first hour after birth and that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first six months, followed by continued breastfeeding until the age of two or beyond, along with an appropriate complementary feeding regimen. Exclusive breastfeeding means that the infant only receives breast milk, without any additional food or drink, not even water, except medications and oral rehydration solutions.

Breastfeeding has always been an integral part of our culture and almost all our infants are breastfed. However, only 45 percent of these infants receive that privilege within one hour of birth and only 70 percent of the infants are exclusively breastfed for the first six months. Early and exclusive breastfeeding, combined with suitably timed complementary feeding, has the potential to save a lot of lives and provides long-term benefits for the child.

Newborns, protected in the mother’s womb for nine long months before being exposed to the outside environment, are fragile and need special care once they are born. An important component of such care is the provision of adequate nutrition. Different factors such as local traditions, ethnicity and religion may determine a woman’s journey to motherhood, but one of the first decision she makes as a mother is how and what to feed her newborn baby. The best choice that she can make is her own milk. It has been a well-documented fact that the beneficial effects of the mother’s milk decreases the chances of the infant’s contracting life-threatening illnesses and long-term chronic diseases.

Another interesting fact is that a mother’s body acts like an automated machine when it comes to providing nutrition for her baby because as the baby grows, the composition of the milk changes so as to adapt to the baby’s need. There is a common belief that mother’s milk is not sufficient for her baby, but the truth is the milk produced retains its quality and is usually produced in quantity that is sufficient for nurturing a newborn. It’s only after six months that a baby requires complementary feeding, when the child has already developed a robust immune system.

Studies have also shown that there is a significant inverse relationship between optimum breastfeeding and neonatal and infant deaths. Delaying breastfeeding or introducing food other than breast milk during the early days of a baby’s life can significantly increase the risk of neonatal illnesses and death.

Nepal has one of the highest neonatal mortality rates in the world and one of the major causes of the problem in Nepal is infection. Breastfeeding has a beneficial effect on the neonates in terms of preventing infections. A mother’s milk provides immunity to the newborn through transmission of antibodies, which reduce the chances of the baby’s contracting bacteria that cause diarrhea, pneumonia and ear infections. In our country, the quality of sanitation and hygiene is rather poor and contaminated food is often sold in the market, which make both infant and mother susceptible to diseases. Breastfeeding minimises this risk along with reducing the child’s risk of being afflicted by long-term conditions such as allergies, obesity and diabetes.

Breastfeeding also provides a unique opportunity for mother and child to bond. The pleasure that a mother receives through such bonding also seems to be transferred on to the baby--studies have shown that a child who has breastfed for more than two years faces decreased risk of depression, mental problems and suicidal tendencies during later stages of life. Breastfeeding has also been proven to be a key element that leads to a child’s growing up to become a more intelligent adult. Research has shown that babies who have been adequately breastfed develop into adults with increased brain size and greater IQ and are more emotionally stable.

In addition to the benefits to her baby, a mother also benefits from breastfeeding. It leads to a decreased rate of bleeding in the mother after delivery and it also plays an important role in birth spacing. Mothers who breastfeed their baby also reduce their chances of contracting breast cancer, uterine cancer and ovarian cancer.

Besides the benefits it provides to the mother and her baby, breastfeeding is also highly economical, as one of the advantages of breastfeeding is that it is essentially free. Add to that the decreased medical bills and expenses on medications, time saved and the stress spared because of reduced illness rates in the baby, breastfeeding simply has no competitors in providing benefits to the baby, the mother and the family.