2019 Jun 7
Of the many gifts you can give a newborn, breastfeeding is one of the most precious ways to begin. United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends up to six months of exclusive breastfeeding (i.e. where a newborn receives only breast milk) for optimal growth and healthy development. Sri Lanka made it a national policy to exclusively breastfeed infants up to six months in 2005. However, the publicizing of accurate and scientifically backed information regarding breastfeeding practices is highly overdue within the Sri Lankan context, especially due to the stigma and improper information surrounding exclusive breastfeeding.
In recent years, a wealth of scientific evidence has shown just how important the first 5 years of life, and especially the first 2 years , are to a child’s whole future. During this period the brain grows rapidly, depending on three things, good nutrition (eat), stimulation (play) and protection from harm (love). And these three areas often rely on parents. This June, Parenting Month, UNICEF have launched a campaign aimed to both celebrate and educate parents on healthy parenting practices that enhance optimal brain development of children. Read more on the venture here. Breastfeeding- a vital component of good nutrition is chief among protecting both mothers and infants.
Why is breastfeeding so important?
Early initiation of breastfeeding (ideally one hour after birth) can protect a newborn in several ways, particularly from gastrointestinal infection, otitis media, UTI and mortality due to other types of infection. Breast milk also provides for more than half of a child’s energy needs within 6 to 12 months, and one third of it from 12 to 24 months and is an important source of nutrients. Statistically, it is also indicated that children who are sufficiently breastfed are also less likely to be obese or overweight when they reach adolescence.
During the first few hours of birth, on-demand breastfeeding (i.e. that is, whenever the infant shows signs of wanting to be breastfed), close physical contact with the mother and refraining from feeding other fluids and food (unless medically instructed) is recommended. UNICEF and the WHO recommend complementary food along with breast milk only after an infant is over 6 months. Frequent breastfeeding can be continued till the child attains two years of age or beyond. More breastfeeding is also recommended when an infant falls ill along with other fluid intake (if over 6 months) and mineral-vitamin supplements.
Overall, breast milk can significantly improve immunity, brain development and steady weight gain. Not only does the practice function as a cost-effective method in protecting babies from infectious diseases but breastfeeding also helps in strengthening the bond between mother and child.
On the contrary, the idea that formulae milk has the same benefits as breast milk and rumours that breast milk can have a negative effect on the mother’s health are baseless and false.
Breastfeeding also benefit mothers, both in the short and long run. One of the most positive implications of breastfeeding is that it is known to reduce the risk of ovarian and breast cancer- two leading causes of death among women. Breastfeeding also reduces post-partum depression. Interestingly, it may also help create a space between pregnancies since exclusive breastfeeding of infants under 6 months results in a hormonal effect that prompts lesser menstruation. This phenomenon is more popularly known as the Lactation Amenorrhoea Method which acts as a natural but not an entirely reliable form of birth control. The Sri Lanka College of Pediatricians also points out that breastfeeding infants can also reduce the risk of hypercholesterolemia, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease in mothers. In addition to this, breastfeeding has a stabilizing effect on mothers who suffer from endometriosis and also helps them to go back to their pre-pregnancy weight faster.
Facts and Figures
A recent study showed that almost 99% of young children in Sri Lanka are breastfed. UNICEF pointed out that children in the South Asian region are more likely to be breastfed and are breastfed longer than children in other parts of the world.
Children who are breastfed for a sufficient amount of time (ideally two years) also perform better in intelligence tests (an average 3 IQ points).
A mother who breastfeeds for longer periods reduces the risk of breast cancer by six percent.
Some would also find it interesting to know that Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to adopt the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes in 1981 and currently ranks among the top countries on breastfeeding rates. In fact, Sri Lanka was ranked first out of 76 countries in UNICEF’s rankings of early initiation of breastfeeding.
Creating a Positive Environment
The implementation of the Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding (launched by UNICEF) have encouraged baby-friendly spaces in Sri Lankan hospitals and creates a safe environment for mothers which also had a direct impact in the increase of breastfeeding rates. Governments and health authorities should ensure that mothers who consult them receive adequate information and awareness on breastfeeding practices. Policies like maternal leave and the right to breastfeed in the workplace as well as supportive workplace policies are vital and requires the attention and support of the private sector and civil society.
Mothers across the country need to have access to proper breastfeeding guidelines and a collective effort must be taken to reinforce positive societal norms regarding breastfeeding in public and busting myths related to false information on breastfeeding. Fathers of the child, partners, family members, social workers and trained practitioners also have an influential role to play in creating a positive environment for breastfeeding moms. As Jean Gough, UNICEF’s Regional Director for South Asia stressed, “breastfeeding is the best gift a mother can give her child, as well as herself.” We commend all our Sri Lankan mothers for providing what is best for their child!
To help parents give the best start to their children, UNICEF has launched www.BetterParenting.lk, a Sinhala, Tamil and English website that brings together comprehensive expert information in four areas; child care, child development, food and nutrition and health, through a mix of articles, video and animation.