The recent efforts by the federal ministry of health to remind Nigerians of the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding are timely and commendable. Nigeria joined the rest of the world from 1 to 7 August to mark the World Breastfeeding Week, an annual event used worldwide by stakeholders to highlight the importance of breastfeeding for children.
Equally noteworthy is the theme for this year’s edition of the event, “Women and Work – Let’s make it Work”, which according to the UNICEF was aimed at both empowering women to combine work with breastfeeding and raising children, as well as emphasising the need for better support systems and policies to enable working mothers to breastfeed exclusively.
Exclusive breastfeeding occurs when a baby receives only breast milk, without any additional food or drinks, including water, until six months of age.Currently, statistics and reports show that Nigeria is lagging behind on this very significant health issue.
For instance, during an event held in Abuja to flag off the 2015 World Breastfeeding Week, Mr Linus Awute, permanent secretary of the federal ministry of health, had lamented that Nigeria had one of the poorest exclusive breastfeeding rates in Africa as many women give their infants water along with breast milk. He equally urged the private sector to encourage breastfeeding mothers through the provision of space for infant care and breastfeeding rooms in work places, as well as allowing flexible working hours for nursing mothers.
That nursing mothers in Nigeria are doing poorly in exclusive breastfeeding compared to their counterparts in other African countries is indeed worrisome, considering the enormous benefits of exclusive breastfeeding to infants and even the mother. This is why all stakeholders in the Nigerian health sector must work towards helping to revive the culture of exclusive breastfeeding.
Exclusive breastfeeding has been repeatedly shown to boost children survival rates, enhance healthy brain development, improve cognitive performance and is associated with better educational achievement in children. For the mothers, exclusive breastfeeding improves maternal health as it reduces risk of post-partum haemorrage, type 2 diabetes and breast, uterine and ovarian cancer. It also in some cases delays the return to fertility, thus preventing unwanted pregnancy.
In a recent study published in the British medical journal, The Lancet, breastfeeding has been found to protect children against diseases and deaths from acute respiratory infection and diarrhoea. The study emphasised that the potential impact of exclusive and optimal breastfeeding is especially important in developing countries like Nigeria with a high burden of disease and low access to clean water and sanitation.
The report noted that while breastfeeding rates are no longer declining at the global level, with many countries experiencing significant increases in the last decade, only 39 per cent of children less than six months of age in developing countries are exclusively breastfed and just 58 per cent of 20 to 23-month-old babies benefit from the practice of continued breastfeeding.
The implication of such figures is grim and urgent steps have to be taken to remedy the situation by not just nursing mothers, but all concerned in making it possible. Indeed, seeing that exclusive breastfeeding could be demanding for nursing mothers makes it imperative for all Nigerians to consciously support and encourage the practice.
According to UNICEF, there are approximately 830 million women workers in the world. A significant percentage of these working women are in Nigeria, which is the most populous nation in Africa. Many of these women return to work soon after delivering babies and therefore need supportive government policies to enable them continue to breastfeed.The Lagos State government has taken a crucial step in this direction with the approval of six months maternity leave for nursing mothers and ten days paternity leave for nursing fathers. It behoves the federal government and other states in the federation to follow this good example.
Nursing mothers in Nigeria must have good family, community, and government support to manage the demands of combining exclusive breastfeeding with occupational commitments. We believe this is in the best interest of all, as the nation benefits in diverse ways from the practice. With exclusive breastfeeding, the nation is able to raise more healthy children who will grow into intelligent adults that are able to contribute effectively to nation building and development.