Do you know that almost half of all cases of deaths of children under five years old have poor nutrition as the underlying cause? Whether infants less than 12 months old die from diarrhea or a 2-year-old dies as a result of malaria or pneumonia, poor nutrition plays a part in the outcome.
Each year, millions of children die and many suffer from physical and mental disability due to poor nutrition during a critical 1,000-day period: from the start of the mother’s pregnancy to their second birthday.
Nutritional practices such as providing iron and folic acid to mothers before and during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, adding solid foods to infant feeding after six months of life and giving supplements like vitamin A and zinc to children have been shown to improve child health and survival significantly.
Of all nutritional interventions in use, exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of life has the highest impact on survival. Exclusive breastfeeding is when you feed the baby only breast milk, without adding other foods or formula.
Why is exclusive breastfeeding so important?
Breast milk is an amazing complex nutritional liquid containing antibodies, enzymes, special fats and hormones which are essential for a baby’s development, but many of which just cannot be added to infant formula. It is nature’s wonder food. No baby formula manufacturer has been able to duplicate breast milk!
Early and exclusive breastfeeding not only improves child survival, but it also promotes healthy brain development, improves mental performance and is linked to better educational achievement at age 5. Breastfeeding gives a baby the best possible start in life.
Breastfeeding benefits the mother and baby in many ways.
Breastfeeding is good for the baby because:
- Breastfeeding gives warmth and closeness, creating a special bond between mother and baby.
- Breastfed babies have at least six times greater chance of survival in the early months than non-breastfed ones.
- Human milk has many benefits.
- It’s easier for the baby to digest.
- It’s more hygienic than formula because no preparation is needed – a huge factor in Sub-Saharan Africa where we lack clean water and proper sanitation.
- It’s always available.
- It has all the nutrients, vitamins, minerals, calories, and fluids the baby needs to be healthy in the first six months of life, and no other liquids or food are needed.
- It has growth factors that ensure the best development of the baby
- It has many nutrients that baby formulas don’t have that protect the baby from diseases and infections. Breastfed babies are less likely to have:
– Pneumonia, wheezing, and bronchiolitis
– Other bacterial and viral infections, like meningitis and ear infections
Breastfeeding is good for the mother because it helps:
- Release hormones in the body that promote good mothering behavior.
- Prevent post-partum hemorrhage and return the uterus to the size it was before pregnancy more quickly.
- Burn more calories, which may help to lose the weight gained during pregnancy.
- Delay the return of her menstrual period to help keep more iron in the body.
- Provide contraception in the first six months after birth by delaying the return of her menstrual cycle – only if mother is exclusively breastfeeding and not giving baby any other foods
- Reduce the risk of ovarian cancer and breast cancer.
- Keep bones strong, protecting against bone fractures in older age.
Breastfeeding may also help to protect against obesity, diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), asthma, eczema, and some cancers.
The research is quite clear – exclusive breastfeeding is key for child survival. The longer you breastfeed, the greater the benefits will be to mother and baby, and the longer these benefits will last.