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Breastfeeding, the best start to life

by HE Toyin Saraki, Wellbeing Foundation Africa
Wednesday, 3 August 2016 13:58 GMT

A refugee child from Baidoa in Somalia is breastfed as they camp outside Ifo refugee camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border, July 30, 2011. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We all have heard that ‘breast is best’, but it really is when it comes to the health of a mother and child. Breastfeeding is vital for immunity, nutrition, increasing life chances and reducing poverty.  As the world concentrates on achieving the global Sustainable Development Goals  by 2030, breastfeeding will be key to reducing child and newborn mortality rates and also achieving better health and wellbeing for all.

Breast milk is vital in strengthening the baby’s immune system and protecting it from invading germs, viruses and infections through the key substance colostrum. The mother’s body also recognises the viruses and infections which she is exposed to and the breast milk which she produces is tailored to protect her baby from these exact illnesses which formula milk cannot do. Without breast milk, there is also a higher chance of Sudden Death Syndrome which is dramatically reduced when the baby is breastfed.  Studies have proven that breastfed children have six times the chances of survival than non-breastfed children. To increase the survival rates of newborns breastfeeding is an essential practice.

The baby is not the only beneficiary of breastfeeding, the mother is as well. The World Cancer Research Fund has recommended breastfeeding as a method to reduce the risk of ovarian, uterine and breast cancer. There are many who are not aware that just breastfeeding your child will decrease your likelihood of developing cancer.  It can also prevent cardiovascular disease in mothers. Breastfeeding also provides the mother with a healthy gap between children so that she can develop a stronger bond with her child and also allows her body time to recover between pregnancies.

Breastfeeding is the key solution to infant nutrition. From the breast milk, the baby receives nutrients, vitamins and minerals which cannot be substituted by formula milk. Breast milk also contains fats that help the child’s brain, retina and nervous system development. It also helps prevent child obesity, diabetes and leukemia. Breast milk helps provide stronger bones for the child and also the feeding mother.The nutritional benefits from breast milk go beyond the baby years’ and it has been known to help cognitive and emotional development in children which later on helps with educational attainment and life chances. As the mother’s body nurtures the seeds of life, so can, and does the mother’s body nurture the newborn to thrive. 

Many mothers from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to breastfeed due to the lack of knowledge or education on the benefits of breastfeeding.  UNICEF has highlighted that low income women who leave school early are the least likely to breastfeed, which increases the effects of poverty and inequality. The lack of breastfeeding has also been proven to reduce the cognitive development of the child which was shown in the PROBIT study, where children which were breastfed had better reading, writing and mathematical skills than those who did not.  If we are to help families exit poverty cycles, the solution starts at the cradle, where the best nutrition is promoted for the best start to life for all.

In 2014, the Wellbeing Foundation Africa (WBFA) launched its breastfeeding initiative. Since then, the Foundation has been conducting mamacare pregnancy classes across Nigeria weekly, where midwives teach mothers about The Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding, nutrition and promote healthy lifestyles for mothers. These classes are the first civil society health visitor programmes in Nigeria. Very few developing countries provide mothers with sufficient education and knowledge on motherhood, and  this lack of knowledge can lead to bad health and at times death of the mother and child.

WBFA has also continually promoted the role of the midwives as the solution to great health for mother and baby. Midwives should be used in health systems not only as caretakers of babies, but also mothers, especially beyond birth in the postnatal period. Midwives should and can be used for a universal holistic health programme where they can better educate mothers, adolescents, women and elders on varying topics from sexual health to menopause.

This week, as we mark Global Breastfeeding Week, we should all recognise the great benefits of breastfeeding in successfully achieving two key global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), notably SDG5, good health and wellbeing for all and SDG1, reducing poverty. WBFA remains dedicated in helping Nigeria and all African countries in reaching these developmental goals and ensuring that every child and every life matters.

HE Toyin Saraki is Founder-President of the Wellbeing Foundation Africa and Global Goodwill Ambassador of the International Midwives Confederation.