World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated every year from 1 to 7 August to encourage breastfeeding and improve the health of babies around the world. It commemorates the Innocenti Declaration signed in August 1990 by government policymakers, WHO, UNICEF and other organisations to protect, promote and support breastfeeding initiatives.
For many countries, the Week provides yet another opportunity for the various stakeholders in the health sector to remind everyone of the many health benefits that can be obtained when couples go the route of ensuring their babies are breastfed.
According to the WHO, breastfeeding is the best way to provide infants with the nutrients they need. WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding, starting within one hour after birth up to at least six months old. Nutritious complementary foods should then be added while continuing to breastfeed for up to 2 years or beyond.
This year, WHO is working with UNICEF and other partners to promote the importance of helping mothers breastfeed their babies within that crucial first hour of life. The evidence is clear. It shows that breastfeeding has cognitive and health benefits for both infants and their mothers. It is especially critical during the first six months of life, helping prevent diarrhoea and pneumonia — two major causes of death in infants. Also, mothers who breastfeed have a reduced risk of ovarian and breast cancer, two leading causes of death among women.
However, in spite of all of the known facts about breastfeeding, countries — including Guyana — are still not where they should be in terms of their breastfeeding targets, as a huge percentage of newborns are still not being breastfed. According to UNICEF and WHO in a report published recently, an estimated 78 million babies – or three in five – are not breastfed within the first hour of life, putting them at higher risk of death and disease, and making them less likely to continue breastfeeding. Most of these babies are born in low- and middle-income countries.
The report notes that newborns who breastfeed in the first hour of life are significantly more likely to survive. Even a delay of a few hours after birth could pose life-threatening consequences. Skin-to-skin contact along with suckling at the breast stimulate the mother’s production of breast milk, including colostrum, also called the baby’s ‘first vaccine’, which is extremely rich in nutrients and antibodies.
Earlier studies cited in the report show that newborns who began breastfeeding between two and 23 hours after birth had a 33 per cent greater risk of dying, compared with those who began breastfeeding within one hour of birth. Among newborns who started breastfeeding a day or more after birth, the risk was more than twice as high.
In Guyana’s case, the breastfeeding rate for newborn babies is now approximately 23 per cent. This is enough to cause the authorities here to review national policies, and revise and strengthen the present approaches in relation to the national breastfeeding campaign. More could be done, and more ought to be done, to ensure that couples are given the necessary information and guidance to go the route of breastfeeding.
We had stated before that there is an urgent need here for a consistent, aggressive breastfeeding campaign aimed at persuading mothers and fathers that early and exclusive breastfeeding helps babies survive, supports healthy brain development, improves cognitive performance, and is a major factor in better educational achievement at age five. To its credit, the Public Health Ministry has engaged in some efforts to encourage breastfeeding, but the campaign needs to be consistent, more focused, and must be able to meet mothers in every corner of the country. During the course of the next few days, it is hoped, health authorities here will step up efforts to promote breastfeeding.
That said, among its many recommendations, the report alluded to earlier urges governments, donors and other decision-makers to adopt strong legal measures to restrict the marketing of infant formula and other breast milk substitutes.