Breastfeeding: The Best Possible Start in Life

Breastmilk is rich in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that help in the healthy growth of a child

Dr. Kaninika Mitra
Seeta Devi feeds her newborn child as Kiran Devi, an Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) demonstrates her correct feeding technique inside her home in the Shrawasti district of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
UNICEF/UN0281007/Vishwanathan
02 August 2022

What better way to give your child the best start in life than by nurturing, nourishing and loving care? Breastfeeding provides babies with the best start in life. It is a baby's best source of nutrition, bolstering brain development with lifelong benefits for the mother and the baby. It is critical for a child's growth and development and contributes significantly to their sense of security and bonding with the mother. And what better time to write about this than World Breastfeeding Week, which is celebrated globally in the first week of August. 

Early initiation of breastfeeding within one hour of birth, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, the introduction of nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods at six months together with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond offer a powerful line of defence against infection and malnutrition and boosters brain development in a child. 

In contrast, children who are not entirely or partially breastfed have a higher risk of diarrhoea and other infections, are more likely to suffer from malnutrition and have an increased risk of death in their infancy. 

THE NECTAR OF LIFE

Breastmilk is rich in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that help in a child's healthy growth. Colostrum, the thick yellowish milk mothers produce just after birth, is the ideal nourishment for a newborn: full of nutrients and rich in antibodies, it is also the baby's first vaccine. It is well-known that breastfeeding reduces the risk of certain infections and diseases in children, including ear infections, asthma, lower respiratory infections, diarrhoea and vomiting, childhood obesity, and sudden infant death syndrome. Further, breastfeeding is associated with an IQ increase of a child by 3 to 4 points.

Breastfeeding not only benefits infants but their mothers as well. It speeds up mothers' recovery from childbirth, lowers their risk of certain breast and ovarian cancers and type 2 diabetes, and helps them maintain birth spacing. 

Breastfeeding helps to prevent malnutrition in all forms and ensures food security for children even in times of crisis. Besides the benefit to mother and child, breastfeeding benefits the family and society. Breast milk is a natural, renewable, and sustainable resource which does not create waste or pollution.

 

Breastfeeding saves expenses on baby food and the cost of health care due to illness. The studies show that every US$1 invested in breastfeeding generates an estimated US$35 in economic returns.

Mother breastfeeding her baby
© UNICEF/UN0332698/

Strengthening the bond 

The significance of breastfeeding can be understood by the fact that a newborn's survival depends on early breastfeeding and initiation and skin-to-skin contact soon after birth. Skin-to-skin contact is essentially bringing the baby into direct contact with the mother's skin to assist them in finding and attaching to the breast. This also raises the mother's levels of oxytocin, a hormone that facilitates breast milk production and helps strengthen the bond between a mother and her child. 

Achievements and missed opportunities  

Jharkhand has reduced the undernutrition prevalence rate among children below five years between 2015-16 (NFHS 4) and NFHS 5 (2019-21). There is a nearly 22 per cent reduction in wasting and approximately a 12 per cent reduction in stunting among children below five years during this period.

Exclusive breastfeeding rates among children under six months have also improved from 65 per cent in 2015-16 (NFHS 4) to 76 per cent in 2019-21 (NFHS 5). Now around 76 per cent of women deliver in health facilities compared to 62 per cent in 2015-16.

Though there is improvement in some areas, there are a few missed opportunities too. Although 3 in 4 women deliver in health facilities, only 1 in 5 babies could get breastmilk within 1 hour. Around the age of 6 months, an infant's need for energy and nutrients starts to exceed what breast milk provides, and complementary foods are necessary to meet those needs.

However, in Jharkhand, 61 per cent of children aged 6–8 months do not get solid/semi-solid food and breastmilk.

Healthcare professionals, such as counsellors, nurses, and doctors, are crucial in helping mothers and kids breastfeed. Women must receive accurate information, counselling, and support at home, in medical facilities, and at work to confidently breastfeed wherever required.

Father and mother with their baby
© UNICEF/UN0332702/

But why is it so? Lack of knowledge, cultural practices of feeding other food to newborns, and shortfalls in the quality of care provided to mothers and newborns are some of the factors contributing to the lack of early breastfeeding initiation after birth.

In the initial days after giving birth, many new mothers also struggle to learn how to breastfeed. Both mothers and babies need to practice breastfeeding over time. Successful breastfeeding procedures call for supportive surroundings and expert instruction. Mothers need support from their families, healthcare professionals, employers, and governments to give their children the best possible start in life. We must therefore foster an enabling environment and assist them at home and work. 

Fathers have a significant role to play in this as well. They can help mothers in early breastfeeding initiation and support the mother and baby to sustain breastfeeding. Furthermore, all health facilities must be equipped to support breastfeeding and provide optimal care to mothers and newborns. 

Breastfeeding is a present from a mother to herself, her child, and the world. While it may not always be easy, it is always worth it.

The author is the Chief of the Field Office for UNICEF in Jharkhand.