Health benefits of exclusive breastfeeding

Health professionals say breast milk contains all the nourishments a newborn needs for proper development in its early stage of existence and going further, later in life. It is recommended that the new baby be fed with breast milk within the first hour of its life, and should be given as often as the baby demands it.

As the World Breastfeeding Week comes up on August 1 to 7, the need for nursing mothers to lay a healthy foundation for their babies’ growth through exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months is again being underscored.

Health professionals say breast milk contains all the nourishments a newborn needs for proper development in its early stage of existence and going further, later in life. It is recommended that the new baby be fed with breast milk within the first hour of its life, and should be given as often as the baby demands it.

Virtually all mothers can breastfeed, provided they have accurate information, and the support of their family, the health care system and society at large.Exclusive and continued breastfeeding up to first 100 days and beyond is said to be of immense help to newborn babies, as it protects them from being malnourished.

The death of an estimated 820,000 children under the age of five could be prevented globally with increased breastfeeding, experts say. Some of the advantages of exclusive breastfeeding include prevention of respiratory tract infections and diarrhoea in newborns. Also, the incidence of certain diseases among babies would be significantly reduced.

Mrs. Toluwani Bakare, a working mother who was at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH) Ikeja, Lagos, to immunise her baby, said she now takes dietary supplements to help the flow of her breast milk.

“I usually breastfeed my babies exclusively for about six months, but it is not easy. Some weeks back, I noticed that my breast milk was not flowing properly, so I was advised to take more liquids. I took more beverage than usual, but it did not help, so I decided to take other food supplements and the breast milk is flowing well now. My three-month-old baby is able to take as much breast milk as he wants.”

Prof. Ebunoluwa Aderonke Adejuyigbe, a Professor of Paediatrics and former Dean of Faculty of Clinical Sciences at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, who is currently the Southwestern Coordinator of the Nigerian Society of Neonatal Medicine (NISONM) and a member of the World Health Organisation Breastfeeding Guideline Development Committee, said breastfeeding should continue as long as the mother and baby desire.

“The Nigerian government recommends that mothers breastfeed exclusively for six months. At six months, other foods and water should be introduced to complement breastfeeding for two years or more. Exclusive breastfeeding means the child takes only breast milk and only prescribed drugs. The exclusively breastfed child should not be given water, herbal concoctions, and other forms of milk,” she said.

Adejuyigbe explained that there are many health benefits of breastfeeding, which may be grouped into three: benefits to the child, mother and community. “Breast milk is the ideal food for newborns and infants. The nutrients in breast milk are in the right quantity, easily digestible and well absorbed, making it ideal for an infant’s 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.”

She noted that a breastfed infant performs better on intelligence tests and has lesser chances of developing type II diabetes, when compared with infant formula fed babies. This is because breast milk is readily available and affordable, which helps to ensure that infants get adequate nutrition at very little cost.

“Breastfeeding has also been associated with reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer, type II diabetes and postpartum depression, thereby reducing the incidence of baby abandonment and abuse. Breastfeeding promotes emotional bonding between the baby and the mother, when practised exclusively, and it also has 98 percent efficiency in preventing pregnancy. The community benefits a lot from breastfeeding. Breastfed babies are healthy babies and healthy babies make a healthy nation. Breastfeeding is economically beneficial to the country, as there is no need spending money on importation of formula. Breastfeeding reduces the incidence and severity of childhood illnesses, thereby improving child survival, as well as reducing national expenditure on breastfeeding.

“Children who are not breastfed have a higher chance of becoming sick and even dying. Babies who have some breast milk are better than those that did not have at all. Newborn babies given water or glucose in water as their first meal, are more predisposed to having infections and allergies. The use of feeding bottles causes what is described as nipple confusion. This is a condition where the baby suckles on the mother’s nipple as if it was the feeding bottle teat and therefore, does not get adequate milk from the mother. Babies who are not breastfed are not likely to develop as much close relationship with their mother as those who are breastfed.”

She also disclosed that breast milk is a living food. The colostrum, which is the yellow custard-like milk produced in the first few days after birth, has been described as the infant’s first immunisation. This is because it is very rich in substances that fight infections.

“It also prevents allergies and constipation in the baby. There are risks inherent in preparing infant formula, especially using unsafe water and unsterilised equipment. There is also the potential presence of bacteria in infant formula. Children who are not breastfed have a 15 times higher chance of having diarrhea, which if it persists for two or more weeks, often leads to malnutrition.

“Pneumonia is also more common in children who are not breastfed. An infant who is fed with artificial milk is more likely to develop allergies and milk intolerance. There is a higher chance of developing chronic diseases, such as diabetes mellitus and overweight obesity, in babies not breastfed. These babies are also more likely to score low on intelligence tests.

“Mothers who did not breastfeed are at a higher risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer, anaemia and becoming pregnant unexpectedly. “Government at all levels needs to protect breastfeeding by enforcing its code on the marketing of breast milk substitutes. This code ensures that all formula labels state the benefits of breastfeeding and frowns at the free distribution of breast milk substitutes to mothers and health workers. Government should support breastfeeding by making it possible for all mothers, especially first time mothers to have access to breastfeeding counsellors. This will require that government provides opportunity for training more breastfeeding counsellors.”

Dr. Folu Adenike Olatona, a Community Health and Public Health Nutritionist, Senior Lecturer at the College of Medicine, University of Lagos Idi-Araba, Lagos added: “A mother should continue breastfeeding, while adding other foods until the baby is two years. Breastfeeding has several advantages. The first milk that comes out of the breast immediately after birth called colostrum is highly beneficial to the child in preventing infections, especially in environments where is poor sanitation. The transitional milk that follows after a few days also contains anti-infective and other factors that protect the infant against many diseases, such as diarrhoea, respiratory tract infection like pneumonia, ear, skin, urinary tract and other types of infection, thereby making it the safest meal for a baby. The protection against infection may even remain for some years after breastfeeding has stopped and it seems to improve with the duration of breastfeeding.

“Exclusive breastfeeding can also reduce the risk of coeliac disease, asthma and other allergic problems. Children who are breastfed also show better vaccine responses after vaccination against childhood diseases. Breast milk is available at all times, and at the right temperature. Most babies find it easier to digest and absorb breast milk than the infant formula.

Underweight is significantly more prevalent among children who are not breastfeed compared to those who were. Breastfeeding also prevents obesity in childhood, adulthood, as well as diet related chronic diseases, such hypertension, diabetes and diet related cancers.

“Breastfeeding burns extra calories and helps the mother lose pregnancy weight faster. It releases the hormone, which helps the uterus to return to its pre-pregnancy size and may reduce uterine bleeding after birth. Breastfeeding also lowers the risk of breast and ovarian cancer,” she insisted.

Olatona stated that in developing countries, where there is poverty and poor sanitation, babies who are not breastfed are likely to be fed with bottles and experience more infections and diseases, which may result in death. On the other hand, those whose parents are in the high socio-economic class and are overfed with infant formula are also at higher risk of developing obesity and related diseases in later childhood or adulthood.

“The breastfeeding policies that are already in place in Nigeria should be strengthened. The national breastfeeding committee should be given incentives to work harder. There should be proper monitoring and evaluation of health centres and hospitals to ensure that every maternity facility practises the ‘Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding.’ The appropriate authorities should continue to take action to give effect to the International Code of marketing breast milk substitutes promoting breastfeeding and preventing advertisement of infant formula and enacting legislation to protect breastfeeding rights of working women,” she said.

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