….to protect every feeding mother and her infant from man-made milk as babies need only the Mom-made one. This was the theme of the 1st World breastfeeding Conference 2012 which was hosted jointly in Delhi by the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI), International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), and World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), in partnership with the Ministry of Women and Child Development, and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
There is compelling evidence to believe that Mother’s milk is the cheapest investment in child survival, growth and investment. It is that magical potion which wards off malnutrition and offers protection against many killer diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia. On the other hand, artificial formula milk increases not only the risk of life threatening childhood infections, but also of non-communicable diseases like diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular diseases.
Yet only 38% of the world’s infants (92 million out of 136 million born every year) are exclusively breastfed for the 1st 6 months of their lives. An overwhelming 62% of them are fed artificially either totally or partially. Initiating breastfeeding within the first hour of birth can reduce neonatal mortality by 20%, but more than half the world’s newborns are deprived of this too. Suboptimal breastfeeding is responsible for 44% of all infant deaths due to acute respiratory infections. The term ‘exclusive breastfeeding’ has to be understood in the right context, as it entails giving only mother’s milk and nothing else (not even water) to the baby during the 1st six months of life.
In India, of the 26 million babies born every year, a whopping 20 million are deprived of optimal feeding on mother’s milk which is naturally sterilized, packed with nutrients and antibodies, easily available, and is free of cost. There is no other food that is more locally produced, affordable and healthier than mother’s milk. In contrast, formula milk, despite being very expensive and not healthy, finds many takers in our country due to aggressive but misleading marketing tactics of baby food manufacturing companies.
While speaking to Citizen News Service - CNS, onsite at the conference, Dr Arun Gupta, Regional Coordinator of IBFAN and Chair of the global Breastfeeding Initiative for Child Survival (gBICS) wondered why we allow the baby food industry to manipulate us (with the sole aim of making huge profits) at the cost of our babies' lives, when we know that mother’s milk is best. They are selling products which are not only unnecessary but also harmful.
Dr Gupta conceded that at times mothers do face some challenges in exclusively breastfeeding the infant for the entire period of 6 months. He said, “The first challenge is for working mothers. The basic principle of exclusive breastfeeding is that the mother and baby have to stay together. If the mother cannot get leave from her work, or cannot take the baby to her workplace, then she will not be able to breastfeed her child. This challenge can be met with supportive laws being in place that grant at least 6 months’ maternity and/or childcare leave, on full salary, to the employees working not only in the government sector but also in the informal/unorganized sectors where the majority of the women workforce is. The second challenge is the medical fraternity itself. When women go for institutional delivery to a health facility, one finds more and more of infant formula and bottle feeding being promoted under the false assumption that women do not have enough milk to produce. This is happening more in the private sector. Once the child is introduced to top feed, it becomes very hard to come back to breastfeed. The baby food companies’ aggressive promotion, in terms of sponsorship of doctors etc, has to be checked. The government has to take this seriously and strictly enforce the existing law that bans any kind of promotion of formula milk. Thirdly, the health system also needs to be skilled to help the lactating mother. Generally the doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers leave the onus of breastfeeding on the mother, thinking that she will do it anyway. But very often, mothers might have some difficulty in feeding the baby and need breastfeeding skills which the doctors should give-- instead of suggesting the easy but dangerous way out of shifting to formula milk. Health personnel should be able to counsel the mother properly, satisfy her doubts and allay her fears, if any; instead of merely pressurizing her to breast feed her baby. Also, as in our country a lot many deliveries still take place at home, these mothers need to be supported at home through some trained outreach workers to give counseling and support regarding breast feeding and refer difficult cases (like breast infection) which they cannot handle, to the health centre.”
Anwar Fazal, Chairperson Emeritus of WABA, told CNS that mothers should be proud of the fact that nature has provided them with the unique gift to produce this great food within them which they can transfer to their most loved one—their baby. This feeling of empowerment alone can inspire women to breastfeed their bundle of joy. But he cautioned that, “We have to make sure that proper support systems are there—the family, community, workplace and government should contribute positively by creating enabling conditions for mothers to breastfeed. So we have to work together with other women, environmental and consumer organizations.”
This year on International Human Rights Day (10th December) let us make our own small efforts to do the right things in the right way and at the right time. Breastfeeding is a fundamental human right of the mothers (as it has enormous benefits for maternal health) and of their babies who are truly voiceless and unable to convey the agony we are subjecting them to by feeding them artificially instead of naturally. Breastfeeding is not a lifestyle choice but a public health necessity as formula baby food can be disastrous for a child’s health.
(The author is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service - CNS. She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA. She received her editing training in Singapore, has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP and taught physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. She also authored a book on childhood TB (2012), co-authored a book (translated in three languages) "Voices from the field on childhood pneumonia" and a report on Hepatitis C and HIV treatment access issues in 2011. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: http://www.citizen-news.org)