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Home / Columns / Why breastfeed? It boosts immunity, brainpower, health

Why breastfeed? It boosts immunity, brainpower, health

Low breastfeeding rates in China, India, Indonesia, Mexico and Nigeria lead to 236,000 child deaths each year, says a WHO and Unicef report.

columns Updated: Aug 06, 2017, 08:27 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
The human milk bank at Mumbai’s Cama Hospital. For new mothers who are not lactating sufficiently, or are struggling in other ways to breastfeed, milk banks offer a possible solution.
The human milk bank at Mumbai’s Cama Hospital. For new mothers who are not lactating sufficiently, or are struggling in other ways to breastfeed, milk banks offer a possible solution. (HT File Photo)

Babies who are exclusively breastfed for six months – not given anything except mother’s milk – have stronger immunity, fewer infections, higher intelligence, better nutritional status and protection against overweight and diabetes in later life.

So great is the protection this provides, that exclusive breastfeeding for six months could save the lives of an estimated 823,000 babies and 20,000 mothers each year, according to a new World Health Organisation and Unicef report.

Apart from protecting mothers against diabetes and breast and ovarian cancers, it can lead to economic savings of up to $300 billion, said The Lancet Series on Breastfeeding, in 2016.

Low breastfeeding rates in countries with the fastest-growing populations – China, India, Indonesia, Mexico and Nigeria – lead to 236,000 child deaths each year and a loss of $119 billion to economies, says the WHO and Unicef report. Of these, 180,000 child deaths occur in India.

Colostrum, the thick, sticky, yellowish milk mother’s produced during the first few days after delivery, provides essential nutrients as well as antibodies to boost the baby’s immune system, protects the child from infections and reduces the risk of death by up to 22% in the first month of life.

Small, but growing

Despite the advantages to both mothers and babies, nearly half of the 26 million babies born in India every year do not get the nutrition boost they need, either because their mothers can’t express enough milk (1% to 5% of such cases) or because they don’t breastfeed as a result of cultural beliefs (in India, many communities believe colostrums is impure and should not be given to babies), psychological issues, physical discomfort, lack of awareness or an inability to do so (having to go back to work, for example).

Just 54.9% of babies are exclusively breastfed for six months in India, show data from the National Family Health Survey 4.

There’s not much difference in breastfeeding practices among urban and rural women – 52.1% exclusively breastfeed their babies in urban India compared to 56% in rural areas. While the numbers have gone up from 46.4% a decade ago, more babies need human milk to reach their development potential.

No country meets the recommended standards for breast-feeding, shows WHO and Unicef’s Global Breastfeeding Scorecard for 2017, which tracked breastfeeding rates in 194 nations.

Globally, only about 40% of children are breastfed exclusively for six months, with breastfeeding rates being above 60% in just 23 countries, according to the scorecard.

Infection protection

Mother’s milk is packed with the nutrition and antibodies a child needs to fight infections in the first two years of life. Exclusively breastfed babies have 12% of the risk of death of those who are not breastfed and improving breastfeeding rates can help bring faster reductions in India’s infant mortality rate of 37 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Nearly half of all diarrhoea deaths and one-third of respiratory infections, which are among the biggest causes of under-5 deaths from infection and associated malnutrition, stunting and wasting, could be prevented with universal breastfeeding.

Healthy edge

Children who are breastfed for 12 months or more have higher IQ scores (by 3.76 points), more years of education, and higher monthly incomes than those who were breastfed for less than one month, concluded a large study that tracked close to 6,000 babies over 30 years in Brazil, and was published in The Lancet. The breastfed children did better in intelligence tests 30 years later and had higher education and income levels in adulthood, the study found.

Breastfed babies are less likely to be overweight and obese in later life and have a lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders. While breastfeeding has no effect on blood pressure or total cholesterol, it offers some protection against asthma, but no protection against skin or food allergies, said another study in The Lancet Series on Breastfeeding.

Doing it right

All children must begin breastfeeding within an hour of birth, recommend WHO and Unicef. Breastfeeding, along with age-appropriate foods after six months, should continue until the child is at least two years old.

Instead, just 41.6% of children under 3 in India were found to have been breastfed within one hour of birth, show NFHS 4 data. Though the numbers have almost doubled, from 23.4% in 2005-06, change is not happening as fast as it should.

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