The lives of over 800, 000 children and 20 000 mothers could be saved each year with universal breastfeeding says a new series by the respected medical journal The Lancet.
Breastfeeding leads to fewer infections, enhanced IQ, probable protection against obesity and diabetes, even breast cancer prevention in mothers, says the series which has been hailed as the most in-depth analysis done so far into the health and economic benefits that breastfeeding can lead to. It also highlights that breastfeeding leads to economic savings of 300 billion dollars
The data published is based on analysis led by scientists at the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil who looked at data from previous research.
Reporting on the findings, The Independent, a UK daily, quotes the study head Professor Cesar Victora as saying, “There is a widespread misconception that breast milk can be replaced with artificial products without detrimental consequences…. The decision not to breastfeed has major long-term negative effects on the health, nutrition and development of children and on women’s health.”
However, globally, only 37% of children under the age of six months are exclusively breastfed in low and middle-income countries.
Women avoid or stop breastfeeding due to many reasons ranging from medical, cultural, and psychological, to physical discomfort. Turning to formula milk, which is heavily pushed by multinational companies and many hospitals, becomes a convenient option.
There is a need to create a supportive environment for a mother who is breastfeeding says Dr Armida Fernandez, Founder, SNEHA. This includes addressing the many myths and misconceptions that are still widely prevalent.
“Mothers, and this includes women from poor backgrounds, want to breastfeed their babies. But if their baby keeps crying, and this happens due to many reasons, they feel it’s because they are not producing enough milk and so they resort to formula or diluted cow’s milk leading to malnutrition”, says Dr Fernandez.
She believes that doctors need to aggressively and consciously encourage breastfeeding.
“I find many doctors do not support it at all. The moment the baby is a little underweight they tell the mother to start a top feed. “ Dr Fernandez suggest that health centres and clinics must have counsellors on their staff who actively encourage women to breastfeed.
Currently India is still some distance away from reaching its targets on improving infant nutrition as per an assessment report by the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI) and Public Health Resource Network (PHRN) published in late 2015.
The report says that nearly 15 million babies, who comprise of 55% of newborns in India annually, are deprived of optimal feeding practices in their first year after birth.
The assessment also points to gaps in policies and programmes outlined for enhancing breastfeeding rates. Countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka fare better than India in comparison.
Aggressive promotion of baby foods by companies, lack of support to women in the family and at work places, inadequate healthcare support, and weak overall policy and programmes were some of the reasons identified as responsible for lack of improvement in infant and young child feeding practice indicators.