Text by Henrylito D. Tacio
Photos: WHO and UNICEF
Initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour of birth, followed by exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continued breastfeeding for up to two years or beyond, offer a powerful line of defense against all forms of child malnutrition, including wasting and obesity, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
In this time of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID 19) pandemic, mother’s milk provides protection against some viruses and bacteria. As the two UN agencies put it: “Breastfeeding also acts as babies’ first vaccine, protecting them against many common childhood illnesses.”
While there has been progress in breastfeeding rates in the last four decades – with a 50% increase in the prevalence of exclusive breastfeeding globally – the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the fragility of those gains, said UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore and WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a joint statement.
“In many countries, the pandemic has caused significant disruptions in breastfeeding support services, while increasing the risk of food insecurity and malnutrition,” said the two UN heads during the commemoration of World Breastfeeding Week, celebrated every August 1-7.
“Several countries have reported that producers of baby foods have compounded these risks by invoking unfounded fears that breastfeeding can transmit COVID-19 and marketing their products as a safer alternative to breastfeeding,” deplored the two UN officials.
This year’s theme is: “Protecting Breastfeeding: A Shared Responsibility.”
“(It) is a time to revisit the commitments made at the start of this year by prioritizing breastfeeding-friendly environments for mothers and babies,” the two UN chiefs pointed out in their joint statement.
The commitments include the following:
• Ensuring the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes – established to protect mothers from aggressive marketing practices by the baby food industry – is fully implemented by governments, health workers, and industry;
• Ensuring health care workers have the resources and information they need to effectively support mothers to breastfeed, including through global efforts such as the Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative, and guidelines on breastfeeding counseling; and
• Ensuring employers allow women the time and space they need to breastfeed, including paid parental leave with longer maternity leave; safe places for breastfeeding in the workplace; access to affordable and good-quality childcare; and universal child benefits and adequate wages.
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 WHO director-general, 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.”
“The use of formulas as the next option requires counseling the mothers and families on their proper and clean preparation,” the HNN states. “The use of preterm formulas should only be recommended when the baby is not gaining weight on standard formula and if it can be affordable.”
For babies smaller than 1,500 gm birth weight, the WHO recommends adding vitamin D, calcium, phosphorus, and iron supplements.