There is an intervention so powerful, it is considered the single most effective way to save newborn lives. Breastfeeding.
Studies around the world have shown that a breastfed baby has better chances of survival, but it doesn’t stop there. A breastfed baby, compared to those who are formula fed, has better immunity, higher IQ, and lower risk of obesity and other metabolic diseases. Similarly, breastfeeding is ideal for mothers. It enhances weight loss and has been proven to reduce the risk of postpartum depression. Most importantly, it helps in post-delivery healing and lowers the risk of cancer, not to mention the benefits of being cost-effective, portable, convenient, and no hygiene issues are involved compared to formula feeding. With all of these benefits, why do only one-quarter of babies in India receive colostrum — breastfed in the first hour of birth — and less than half are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their lives?
Barriers such as perceived milk insufficiency (not having enough milk to feed the baby), minimal access to knowledge about breastfeeding, and lack of counselling and adoption of optimal breastfeeding practices by medical practitioners top the list. There are also social barriers, such as mothers feeling embarrassed to breastfeed in public or thinking that breastfeeding is ‘old school.’ With the number of nuclear families increasing, a majority of young mothers don’t have elder women guiding them about breastfeeding, and working women want their babies to be independent as soon as possible so they can go back to their jobs.
Another obstacle limiting breastfeeding rates in India is the high number of babies who are born premature; have a low birth weight; and are sick, orphaned, or severely malnourished. In some cases, mothers’ lactation is hindered due to illness or postpartum complications. Due to such complications, 30 to 50 percent of babies, admitted in neonatal intensive care units and 10 to 15 percent of babies born healthy, do not receive breast milk. This affects an overwhelming 6 million babies in India each year. In this stark situation, advocates of maternal and child health continue to work diligently toward strengthening the practice of breastfeeding among new mothers in India and finding effective ways to give all babies human milk.
The government of India and many development partners, such as the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India, have been working for decades toward addressing these hurdles and encouraging mothers to breastfeed. Among many initiatives, the government has provisioned its employees with a mandatory six-month maternity leave to motivate and push for higher rates of exclusive breastfeeding. The government has also implemented a stringent act called The Infant Milk Substitutes, Feeding Bottles and Infant Foods (Regulation of Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, commonly known as the IMS Act, that curbs promotion of formula milk for babies until two years of age. In an interesting initiative, the government of Tamil Nadu is opening lactation booths at bus stops across the state to encourage mothers to breastfeed while in public.
Alongside these endeavours, the government is also prioritising the availability of donor milk through human milk banks, which ensures that all babies, especially those who are vulnerable, receive safe human milk in the absence of their mother’s milk. At PATH, we are working with technical and policy leaders around the world, including India, to implement a vision where all babies have access to human milk by establishing a model that promotes, strengthens, and protects breastfeeding by integrating breastfeeding promotion, skin-to-skin care (kangaroo mother care), and human milk banking.
This World Breastfeeding Week, observed 1 to 7 August 2016, I urge the medical fraternity, especially in the private sector, to adopt the practice of counselling expectant and lactating mothers about the benefits of breastfeeding and early rooming-in. In addition, communities across every social stratum need to come forward to support new mothers and help them internalise breastfeeding by bringing down social barriers. Young, educated mothers who breastfeed can be critical influencers on others around them. It is important to create a movement where every mother naturally and supportively breastfeeds her child and is also able to help those who are less fortunate by donating excess breast milk. After all, breastfeeding mothers are the strongest advocates of a practice that is as old as human civilisation itself.