Text by Henrylito D. Tacio
“Breastfeeding is essentially the first food of the human body,” said Dr. Maria Asuncion Silvestre, president of Kalusugan ng Mag-Ina, Inc. (KMI).
She said those words during the online forum, which revisited current health systems through first-hand accounts of experts and grassroots community workers on pediatric education, re-lactation, and optimal infant feeding practices.
According to Dr. Silvestre, breastfeeding is not just about the product that is the mother’s milk but also the process wherein the mother serves as the primary food producer.
She pointed out that the first food for the first 1,000 days of an infant starts in utero while the infant is still in the womb; hence ensuring the health of the mother is also important.
Dr. Glenn B. Gregorio, director of the Laguna-based Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA), asserted that the discourse on food and nutrition needs to level up but must start at a mother level.
“We need to help mothers in pregnancy and postpartum recovery. We need to demand for long-term health of mother protection against diseases, especially coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19),” said Dr. Gregorio, a United Nations Food System Champion.
Noting the production and consumption always comes to mind when the subject is the food system. Dr. Gregorio stressed that the best example is “the wonderfully made food production system that starts from a mother for her child.
Going back to breastfeeding, it has been promoted by the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
“Breastfeeding provides every child with the best possible start in life. It delivers health, nutritional and emotional benefits to both children and mothers. And it forms part of a sustainable food system. But while breastfeeding is a natural process, it is not always easy. Mothers need support – both to get started and to sustain breastfeeding,” the two UN agencies said in a statement.
As studies have found out, increasing rates of exclusive breastfeeding could save the lives of 820,000 children every year around the world, which would generate the US $302 billion in additional income.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations health agency urged mothers to continue breastfeeding their children. They need to as it is the right thing to do.
COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that is a distant cousin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. “(The virus that can cause infection) has not, to date, been detected in the breastmilk of any mother with confirmed/suspected COVID-19,” the UN health agency said.
“It appears unlikely, therefore, that COVID-19 would be transmitted through breastfeeding or by giving breastmilk that has been expressed by mother who is confirmed/suspected to have COVID-19,” it said, adding that researchers continue to test breast milk from mothers with confirmed/suspected COVID-19.
Breastmilk saves children’s lives as it provides antibodies that give babies a healthy boost and protect them against many childhood illnesses. After all, breastmilk, the UN health agency explains, is more than a simple collection of nutrients. It contains all the essential nutrients like protein, fats, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and sugars in exact proportion. It meets the needs of the growing infant at every stage.
“Early and exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a child’s life reduces child mortality and has health benefits that extend into adulthood,” explains the Healthy Newborn Network (HNN).
“Breastfeeding benefits not only the child but the mother and family also, as it is free of cost and reduces the risk of infection in newborns, enhances neurodevelopment, and reduces the risk of acquiring certain non-communicable illnesses in adulthood,” HNN adds.
The HNN says that breastmilk substitutes and animal milk (from cattle, carabao, and goats) not only lack essential immune-building components they also expose the infant to an increased risk of infection and morbidity.
Dr. Hiroshi Nakajima, former director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), described breast milk in these words: “The sole truly universal food for the entire human species.”
Dr. Nakajima said breast milk, until recently, has served as “a vital link for nutrition and survival across the entire span of human existence, nurturing the newborn, the infant, and the young child during the most vulnerable years, all the while providing a powerful source of protection from infectious disease.”
Breast milk, the United Nations health agency explains, is more than a simple collection of nutrients. For thousands of years, in all continents, babies have been breastfed for a simple reason: mother’s milk is natural.
“Mother’s milk is a living substance of great biological complexity that not only provides unique protection against disease, but also stimulates the baby’s own immune system,” the WHO points out.
The WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, after which “infants should receive nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods while breastfeeding continues for up to two years of age or beyond.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics pointed out the importance of breastfeeding. It said: “Extensive research using improved epidemiologic methods and modern laboratory techniques documents diverse and compelling advantages for infants, mothers, families, and society from breastfeeding and use of human milk for infant feeding. These advantages include health, nutritional, immunologic, developmental, psychologic, social, economic, and environmental benefits.”
Breast milk is easily digested by babies, so they don’t have to face the problem of constipation. Breastfed babies rarely have ear or respiratory system infections, allergies, stomach problems like diarrhea and vomiting.
Children who were breastfed exclusively for at least three months had better intelligence scores later in life than those who received formula, according to a study in the Archives of General Psychiatry.
“A woman’s body is a sacred temple,” wrote Suzy Kassem, author of Rise Up and Salute the Sun. “A work of art, and a life-giving vessel. And once she becomes a mother, her body serves as a medicine cabinet for her infant. From her milk she can nourish and health her own child from a variety of ailments.”
When mother’s milk is not available, the WHO and UNICEF promote the use of pasteurized donor human milk as the second option in preference to formulas. However, WHO has particularly specified that the “recommendation (is) relevant for settings where safe and affordable milk-banking facilities are available or can be set up.