How important is exclusive breastfeeding?


Some weeks back, I was discussing exclusive breastfeeding with a friend whose wife was recently delivered of a baby. I was surprised to hear that the couple was already giving their baby (who was less than two months old) infant baby formula, as a supplement to breast milk.

I asked my friend why he could not encourage his wife who, at the time, was not working, to do exclusive breastfeeding for, at least, three, if not six months. His reply was that breast milk was no longer satisfying the baby. I argued that he could have encouraged the wife to eat more food that would enable her cope with the baby’s demand for breast milk. I also pointed out that, at that tender age, the baby’s stomach couldn’t have been so big as to make exclusive breastfeeding unbearable for the mother.

Still, my friend was noncommittal in his response. My deduction from the discussion was that the couple had been supplementing breastfeeding with infant baby formula, more or less, from the first month in the life of the baby. I was disappointed and expressed it to my friend because he was somebody I believed should have acted differently, being an enlightened person and who, in fact, should be an advocate of exclusive breastfeeding.

I remembered that discussion lately when I was perusing a mail alert on the World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) 2014. The WBW is celebrated every year from 1 to 7 August. The event is celebrated to commemorate the Innocenti Declaration signed in August 1990 by government policymakers, WHO, UNICEF and other organisations to protect, promote and support breastfeeding. WBW is celebrated in more than 170 countries, including Nigeria.

The theme for this year’s WBW is: “Breastfeeding: A Winning Goal-For Life!”According to the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), the theme asserts the importance of increasing and sustaining the protection, promotion and support of breastfeeding in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) countdown, and beyond.

The four objectives of WBW 2014, according to WABA are: To provide information about MDGs and how they relate to breastfeeding and infant and young child feeding (IYCF); to showcase the progress made so far and the key gaps in breastfeeding and IYCE; to call attention to the importance of stepping up actions to protect, promote and support breastfeeding as a key intervention in the MDGs and in the post 2015 era; and to stimulate interest among young people of both genders to see the relevance of breastfeeding in today’s changing world.

I must say that breastfeeding, according to several published researches, is still the most effective and inexpensive way of sustaining and protecting an infant. Children who are exclusively breastfed are said to be 14 times more likely to survive the first six months of life than their non-exclusively breastfed counterparts.

UNICEF Deputy Executive Director, Geeta Rao Gupta, in a message to commemorate the WBW last year, said: “There is no other single health intervention that has such a high impact for babies and mothers as breastfeeding and which costs so little for governments… Breastfeeding is a baby’s first immunisation and the most effective and inexpensive life-saver ever.”

According to experts, breastfeeding, apart from helping to enhance a child’s ability to learn, and preventing so many diseases later in life, is equally beneficial for the mothers. Mothers who breastfeed exclusively for six months are not likely to get pregnant within the period, and they recover faster after giving birth.

Yet, despite these numerous benefits of breastfeeding, only 39 per cent of children aged less than six months were exclusively breastfed in 2012, according to UNICEF. This figure has not significantly improved because of reasons like the one given by my friend and lack of support for breastfeeding mothers in the society. Many nursing mothers working are usually unable to continue exclusive breastfeeding because they have to leave their babies at home after the stipulated two to three months maternity leave.

Breastfeeding (and, particularly, exclusive breastfeeding for six months) is also on the wane in Nigeria. According to statistics from the National Demographic Health Survey, only 13 in 100 mothers breastfeed their babies exclusively for the first few months of life. It is therefore doubtful if the target of the government to increase the rate of exclusive breastfeeding among women to, at least, 50 per cent by 2015 is achievable.

To improve on the present situation, it is crucial for the government and, indeed, all Nigerians to support efforts to significantly increase breastfeeding rate in Nigeria. Parents must be educated on the importance of exclusive breastfeeding. Such education should also include how to surmount inherent challenges in breastfeeding. Health workers, in particular, have crucial roles to play. Expectant mothers, especially during antenatal checkups, must be adequately educated on all the benefits of breastfeeding.

It may also be necessary to review the laws concerning granting of maternity leave. The Lagos State government must be commended for the bold decision it took recently when it extended maternity leave from 3 months to 6 months for all female civil servants in the state, as well as granting 10-day paternity leave to all male civil servants whose wives have just given birth

This will surely enable nursing mothers employed by Lagos State government to exclusively breastfeed their babies. I urge other states and the Federal government to follow the footsteps of the Lagos State government and grant nursing mothers six months maternity leave.

As the theme for the WBW 2014 rightly says: “Breastfeeding is a winning goal for life.” It should therefore be promoted and supported by all.