In a country where 1.5 million children under five years die of malnutrition every year, just 46% infants under six months are exclusively breastfed, says a Global Nutrition Report by UNICEF. Globally, the figure is less than 40%.
Low exclusive breastfeeding is one of the major reasons of undernutrition in children below five years of age. Across the world, 3.1 million children under five die due to malnutrition every year. Half of these deaths occur in the first 28 days of life, a time referred to as the neonatal period.
“The reasons for low exclusive breastfeeding in India include myths and fears of mothers, particularly the ‘feeling of not enough breast milk’, feeding prelacteals before starting to breastfeed, lack of awareness regarding benefits of exclusive breastfeeding, etc.,” said Victor Aguyao, chief of Child Nutrition and Development Programme, UNICEF India.
“Working mothers who often leave their children back home are unable to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months. Field observations show there is also status attached with use of baby products owing to massive commercial advertisements,” he added.
“Research shows initiation of breastfeeding within an hour of birth can reduce neonatal mortality rate by up to 22% by averting deaths related to sepsis, pneumonia, diarrhoea and hypothermia. Undernutrition puts children at a greater risk of severe illness due to common infections,” Aguyao told HT.
The biggest challenge when it comes to child nutrition in India is that it happens very early in life and for most it happens either before birth or within the first 24 months of life. Therefore, there is a 1,000-day window of opportunity — from conception to two years — to prevent malnutrition in children.
“Exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of life and age-appropriate food for children between six months and two years are essential to reduce child undernutrition rates,” he said.