Less than 40 percent of mothers worldwide breastfeed their infants exclusively in the first six months, as recommended by the WHO. Many abandon it because they don’t know how to get their baby to latch on properly or suffer pain and discomfort.
Colostrum, the yellowish, sticky breast milk produced at the end of pregnancy, is recommended by WHO as the perfect food for the newborn, and feeding should be initiated within the first hour after birth.
Who says that exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.
This can give children vital nutrients and strengthen their immune system to fight diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia. Formula milk does not provide the same immunity and local water can be contaminated or unsafe in many parts of the world.
Raising to 90 percent the global breastfeeding rate for infants to six months would save an estimated 13 percent of the 10 million under-age-5 deaths a year.
In a statement released to mark World Breastfeeding Week, August 1-7, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said it was also important that mothers in disaster zones be given the support they need to continue or restart breastfeeding.
Health benefits for infants
Breast milk is the ideal food for newborns and infants. It gives infants all the nutrients they need for healthy development. It is safe and contains antibodies that help protect infants from common childhood illnesses – such as diarrhoea and pneumonia, the two primary causes of child mortality worldwide. Breast milk is readily available and affordable, which helps to ensure that infants get adequate sustenance.
Benefits for mothers
Breastfeeding also benefits mothers. The practice when done exclusively often induces a lack of menstruation, which is a natural (though not fail-safe) method of birth control. It reduces risks of breast and ovarian cancer later in life, helps women return to their pre-pregnancy weight faster, and lowers rates of obesity.
Long-term benefits for children
Beyond the immediate benefits for children, breastfeeding contributes to a lifetime of good health. Adults who were breastfed as babies often have lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol, as well as lower rates of overweight, obesity and type-2 diabetes. There is evidence that people who were breastfed perform better in intelligence tests.
Why not infant formula?
Infant formula does not contain the antibodies found in breast milk and is linked to some risks, such as water-borne diseases that arise from mixing powdered formula with unsafe water (many families lack access to clean water). Malnutrition can result from over-diluting formula to “stretch” supplies. Further, frequent feedings maintain the breast milk supply. If formula is used but becomes unavailable, a return to breastfeeding may not be an option due to diminished breast milk production.
Work and breastfeeding
WHO recommends that a new mother should have at least 16 weeks of absence from work after delivery, to be able to rest and breastfeed her child. Many mothers who go back to work abandon exclusive breastfeeding before the recommended six months because they do not have sufficient time, or an adequate place to breastfeed or express and store their milk at work. Mothers need access to a safe, clean and private place in or near their workplaces to continue the practice.