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Embracing Exclusive Breastfeeding: the Optimal First Food System

Embracing Exclusive Breastfeeding: the Optimal First Food System

Growing up, I guess we all learned about the concept of a balanced diet (Adequate diet), a food that contains all the required nutrients in the right proportions. Interesting, right? Now, imagine having a constant supply of such an adequate diet for a period of six months at little or no extra cost, this describes the concept of Exclusive Breastfeeding, giving ONLY breast milk to a child for the first six months of life.

A Mother Breastfeeding her Infant — — — — — — Source: istockphoto.

Human milk which is natural and requires no processing or preparation before consumption has been proven with significant certainty as the optimal food in the infant food system. Aside from being the best form of nourishment, breast milk is easily digestible, contains antibodies to combat infections, and improves cognitive and nervous development, among other benefits. The breastfeeding mother is also not excluded from these benefits as it reduces her risk of developing ovarian & breast cancers, high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, post-partum depression, etc.

While it is not surprising that virtually all the children in Nigeria have been breastfed at one point in their life, it is however shocking and worrisome to find out that only about 3 in 10 children are breastfed exclusively. On inquiry into this, some of the major factors limiting exclusive breastfeeding practice are attributed to social acceptance, workplace support, lactation management, health conditions, and cultural beliefs.

The Cost of Not Breastfeeding

As explained above, despite the diverse benefits accrued to us as individuals and society from breastfeeding, breastmilk substitutes (BMS) have been largely employed in feeding the majority of infants and toddlers. This has pushed health and planetary boundaries in terms of increased malnutrition and infant mortality from BMS contamination, paper use, greenhouse gas emissions, freshwater use, plastic pollution, and transport cost at different stages along the value chain among others. Being the optimal choice of nutrition for infants, breastfeeding is now an environmental and health imperative.

Making breastfeeding our shared responsibility, what we must do now!

1. Proper sensitization: Spread the Gospel of Breastfeeding! Personally, I feel we need to make enough publicity like that of Covid-19 or immunization, to achieve our desired result regarding Exclusive breastfeeding. Mothers who have breastfed before should share their experiences, encourage and guide new mothers on this journey.

Family supporting a breastfeeding mother — — — — -Source: Wellness Coalition

2. Provide Support: Breastfeeding can be overwhelming for a new mother, there is a need for a solid support system to provide help around the house. People around a new mother (friends and family members especially husbands, grandmothers, and mothers-in-law) should help ease the stress at home.

3. Seek Professional Medical Help: Pregnant women and lactating mothers with questions should seek help from specialists; Nutritionists, Dietitians, and Lactation Consultants. Not all medical professionals can give advice on breastfeeding issues.

4. Policy Makers: Key decision-makers should create an enabling environment to encourage exclusive breastfeeding. Approving six months of paid maternity and 2 weeks of paid paternity leaves for working parents as well as establishing creches in key government offices are imperative!

5. Private Sector Employers: Adopt the maternity and paternity leaves as recommended (№ 4) above or explore the option of making 4 months maternity leave with pay and 2 months remote work (leverage the lessons learned from the Covid work-from-home era).

Taking the actions highlighted above will invariably help create a breastfeeding-friendly environment in line with this year’s World Breastfeeding Week theme, “Enabling Breastfeeding: Making a Difference for working parents” which was celebrated two weeks ago from Aug 1–7.

Adeoluwa Adegbemile is a Nutrition Policy Analyst, he writes from Abuja, Nigeria.