Exclusive breastfeeding, key to having healthy children with fully developed brains - UNICEF
Kingsley Mba, December 13, 2018
Mothers have been advised to practice exclusive breastfeeding as a sure way of having children who will not only be healthy but also have fully developed brains with high cognitive ability.
Exclusive breastfeeding means giving a child only breast milk without water, baby formula or any other supplements for 6 months after birth after which supplements like water and baby formulas can be added for at least 12 months.
Dr Davis Omotola, a Nutrition Consultant made this known in one of his presentations during the two-day media training and workshop on Child Malnutrition organized by UNICEF with support from Department For International Development(DFID) in Yola, Adamawa state.
Dr Omotola urged expectant mothers and lactating women to see exclusive breastfeeding as the life-wire of newborn babies since an exclusively breastfed baby has a better chance of surviving childhood diseases like diarrhea, cholera, malaria, and pneumonia. The child will also grow with a brain capacity and mental ability which would enable him/her cope better more than his/her mates who are not exclusively breastfed. This according to him stems from the fact that breastmilk contains all the essential micronutrients and vitamins needed for a child to grow and develop all the necessary organs especially during the first 1000 days of life, a period which is very critical in every child’s life.
"In addition exclusive breastfeeding reduces the risk of infections like ear-infection, asthma, respiratory diseases and adulthood sicknesses like heart attack, hypertension and diabetes", said Dr Omotola.
He dismissed as baseless and unfounded the often held belief that breastmilk is not enough to satisfy a newborn nutritional requirements making some lactating mothers to resort to supplementing breast milk with water and baby formulas. According to Omotola, breast milk contains all the nutritional requirements in their right proportions for a child to grow and develop optimally. He also said breat milk contains over 70% of water so there is no need to add water during the 6 months period of exclusive breastfeeding.
Another important component of breastmilk is the colostrum. This is the first early milk a woman's breast produces after delivery, it is thick, sticky and yellowish in colour often reffered to as liquid gold or natural vaccine because it is very rich in antibodies and white blood cells to protect the baby from infections and diseases. Colostrum is also easy to digest given the fact that the newborn at that time still have a fragile system including the degestive track.
Supporting his assertion with more evidence Omotola stated that northeast has been the worst hit by the scourge of malnutrition, where 1 in every 6 children is suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM). In addressing this situation, there is need for more sensitization for women in the region to know the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding not only for the baby but also for the mother.
“A woman has no reason not to breastfeed her child even when such woman is sick or hungry, since findings have shown that breast-milt is a natural fluid which is stored in abundance in lactating mothers. Interestingly breastfeeding also has some benefits to the mother herself, which include, reduces the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, helping the uterus to contract and stopping postpartum bleeding. It also helps in weight reduction and maintaining good shape, lower the risk of depression among other things”.
Nigeria has been identified as a country with one of the highest burden of malnutrition only second to India but when you consider the populations of the two countries such rating pales into insignificance, placing Nigeria as number one since India’s population is almost 5 times higher than Nigeria. Currently about 25 million children in Nigeria are said to be wasting while another 10 million are stunted. The northern part of the country is the hardest hit. Ironically the north is said to be the food basket of the nation where most of the crops are being grown as majority of the people there are farmers but sadly this has not reflected in their feeding culture leading to wide spread malnutrition and its attendant consequences. 1 out of every 7 children in the northeast is said to be malnourished. Northwest has its own share of 1 out of 6 children. Conversely the whole of southern Nigeria according to the same statistics have the lowest figure of 1 out 71 children.
The Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS5) report shows that malnutrition among under five children has worsened between 2011 and 2016 when the survey was conducted. From the report child wasting increased from 24.2% to 31.5% while stunting increased from 34.8% to 43.6%.
The role of education in addressing malnutrition has also been brought to the front burner. Findings have shown that educated mothers practice exclusive breastfeeding more as opposed to the uneducated ones who may not know the benefits of breastfeeding. In the north the level of education is quite low especially among the females, most of whom are married off before their eighteenth birthday as child brides. The consequences of this cultural practice is forcing the girls into early motherhood when they are barely prepared, emotionally, physically, intellectually and psychologically to face such challenge.
This will also affect the children from such unions who would be poorly breastfed and even denied other nutritional supplementations leading to stunting, wasting, underweight and micronutrients deficiencies.
Such children having lost these life-saving interventions if they survive early childhood killer diseases like pneumonia, cholera, measles would likely end up with poorly developed brains, inadequate cognitive abilities as well as other essential organs. This will not only affect the quality of life they live but will adversely affect their productivity and abilities to carry out mentally tasking assignments which require critical thinking.
Juxtaposed with children who have the privilege of being exclusively breastfed with good food supplementations leading up to the first 1000 days of their lives, these children are most likely going to be healthier, physically and mentally sound and have abilities to thrive better than their counterparts who are malnourished or not properly fed.
UNICEF have through their various nutrition intervention programs been able to reach over 2 million children in eleven northern states. Over the years UNICEF has initiated and sustained various programs on nutrition which includes Community Based Management of Acute Malnutrition (CMAM) where over 200,000 children have been treated with Ready-To-Use-Therapeutic Food (RUTF) for severely acute malnourished children, Infant and Young Child Feeding – this method promotes and encourage mothers to practice exclusive breastfeeding for six months with other necessary supports and counselling. This also include providing complementary feeding, micronutrients powders distributions to mothers after the six months of exclusive breastfeeding and provision of Vitamin A and iron supplements for children suffering from micronutrients deficiencies.
Despite the commendable efforts by UNICEF and partners in tackling malnutrition, there still exist a huge gap as millions of children are in dire need of nutrition intervention. The current nutrition indicators showing that about 25 million children in Nigeria are malnourished are quite worrisome.
Nigeria government needs to invest more in nutrition. Scaling up investments in nutrition will reduce child mortality by 50% according to report and this shows how critical nutrition is to child survival.
Increasing budgetary allocation to nutrition is key to solving malnutrition.
Looking at the gloomy picture as regards to malnutrition in Nigeria, it has also become imperative to stimulate more discussions through social movements, media advocacy and multi-sectoral engagements.
According to UNICEF Nutrition officer in Bauchi, Dr Martins Jackson, nutrition is too important to be left in the hands of the government alone.
Exclusive breastfeeding is very critical to child survival and full development. In northern Nigeria most women are not well informed about the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding and this has resulted in having high noncompliance level to exclusive breastfeeding.
Dr Kelechukwu Onah, a medical practitioner has this to say about exclusive breastfeeding, " The benefits of exclusive breastfeeding for children cannot be overemphasised, it is key to a healthy child because breast milk contains everything a baby needs to grow and develop fully like water, protein, vitamins and antibodies against infections".
On the reason some mothers including those in the medical field do not practice exclusive breastfeeding on their babies, Dr Onah said, some women still believe that breast milk is not enough for the baby while some argue that if their own parents supported breast milk with other supplements including water when they were born and they did not suffer any deformities or death why would they not do same for their babies.
She also attributed the attitude to lack of inadequate caring or maternity time, since some mothers because of their jobs and other commitments have little time to breastfeed their babies.
Dr Onah also blame certain cultural beliefs and lifestyles where some women think their breasts would sag and they would be out of shape when they breastfeed their babies exclusively for six months.
Experts have suggested establishing community based centres for the management of breastfeeding where both men and women are sensitized with relevant information about exclusive breastfeeding and complementary feeding for newborns and under five children as part of the response plan in addressing the poor attitude of mothers to excusive breastfeeding. According to them, incorporating men in the breastfeeding awareness drive will help to change the narratives since empirical evidence shows that men in the north play a pivotal role in the nutrition decision of their families.