Not fewer than 20,000 maternal deaths could be prevented yeary in the country with optimal breastfeeding, the Federal Government has said.
It further stated that breastfeeding also prevents postpartum bleeding in mothers, supports child spacing and lowers the risk of breast and ovarian cancers and early return to pre-pregnancy body weight.
Also, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), in a statement, urged the government to find innovative solutions to protect and promote women’s access to breastfeeding counselling, a critical component of breastfeeding support.
They noted that breastmilk saves children’s lives as it provides antibodies that give babies a healthy boost and protect them against many childhood illnesses.
While researchers continue to test breastmilk from mothers with confirmed or suspected COVID-19, evidence indicates that it is unlikely that COVID-19 would be transmitted through breastfeeding.
The Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, at a briefing in Abuja to commemorate the World Breastfeeding Day, said Nigeria has, over the years, joined more than 170 countries to commemorate the World Breastfeeding Week, intended to create awareness and generate support for improved breastfeeding practices for good health and well-being outcomes for infants and young children.
“The theme of this year’s celebration is,‘Support Breastfeeding for a Healthier Planet.’ It focuses on the impact of proper infant feeding on the environment, by garnering support for breastfeeding for the health of people and planet. Breastfeeding is naturally environmentally friendly, since it does not draw on any resources or create environmental pollution. In contrast to formula feeding, breast milk is a naturally-renewable, requires no disposal of packaging and its production does not increase our carbon foot print.
“The benefit of breastfeeding to both mother and baby is well documented. Breastfed babies have stronger immunity, reduced risk of suffering many childhood illnesses and infections. It is also associated with longer-term health benefits including reduced risk of overweight and obesity in childhood and adolescence. Studies have shown that obesity rates are 15-30 percent lower in breastfed babies compared to formula-fed babies. The World Health Organization, in a series of Lancet publications on breastfeeding, reports that scaling up breastfeeding practices to almost universal level could prevent an estimated 823 000 annual deaths, or 13·8 percent of all deaths of children younger than 24 months,” Ehanire said.
The government, however, decried the low practice of breastfeeding practices in the country, as only 42 per cent of children are put to breast within 1 hour of birth and the proportion of children 0 to 6 months who are exclusively breastfed is a mere 29 percent. “Breastfeeding also provides health benefits to mothers, by helping to prevent postpartum bleeding, support child spacing, lower the risk of breast and ovarian cancers and earlier return to pre-pregnancy body weight. An estimated 20,000 maternal deaths could be prevented annually if optimal breastfeeding were practiced,” he added.
Despite these benefits, the breastfeeding indices in Nigeria are below optimal. According to the National Demographic and Health Survey 2018, 97 per cent of children are breastfed at one point or the other; but only 42 per cent are put to breast within 1 hour of birth and the proportion of children 0 to six months who are exclusively breastfed is a mere 29 per cent. The Federal Ministry of Health recommends early initiation of breastfeeding within an hour of birth, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, continued breastfeeding up to two years of age or beyond and introduction of appropriate complementary food as from six months.
As part of measures to increase optimal breastfeeding practices, government has developed the National Social and Behavioural Change Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding, but a major barrier to its proper implementation is the practice by mothers and care givers, on giving water to babies from birth to the age of six months. “To address this problem, we launched the National Zero Water Campaign during the 2019 World Breastfeeding Week celebration, aimed to educate Nigerians on the need to give babies only breast milk only, and no other liquids in the first six months of life. The Campaign is ongoing in several states.
“The National Guidelines on the Baby Friendly Initiative (BFI) is currently being reviewed. It encompasses baby friendly services in the hospital, community and workplace; the goal of which is to incorporate programming breastfeeding as an integrated delivery in routine services pertaining to breastfeeding at health facility, community and workplace, and incorporating the revised 10 steps to successful breastfeeding,” he said.
According to UNICEF’s representative in Nigeria, Peter Hawkins, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, like most emergencies, leaves families with children in an extremely vulnerable position. Given the present lack of evidence that transmission of the virus could occur through breastmilk, we recommend that mothers should be encouraged to initiate and continue to breastfeed their babies while observing good hygiene practices.
“Through strengthened policy provisions and increased investment for breastfeeding, we can ensure that mothers in Nigeria are empowered to breastfeed their babies. Breastfeeding is still the safest during and after the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hawkins said.
Both UNICEF and WHO recommend that babies be fed only breastmilk for their first 6 months, after which they should continue breastfeeding – as well as eating other nutritious and safe foods – until 2 years of age or beyond. Currently, only 29 per cent of Nigerian children between the ages of 0 to 6 months are exclusively breastfed. They explained that breastmilk substitutes such as infant formula, other milk products, and beverages not only contribute negatively to the health and development of the child, but also to environmental degradation and climate change. Breastmilk, on the other hand, is natural, and is the only food a baby needs in the first six months of life.
UNICEF called on relevant agencies to strictly enforce adherence to the National Regulation on the Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and relevant World Health Assembly (WHA) resolutions by putting a stop to the unwholesome marketing of breastmilk substitutes. Civil society organisations should also not seek or accept donations of breastmilk substitutes in emergency situations.
It said during the Covid-19 pandemic, availability and increased access to health care workers, including midwives and nurses, to deliver skilled breastfeeding counselling to mothers and families is essential. Also, efforts must be made to increase investment in maternal, infant, and child nutrition interventions at the community level support and to implement policies that support maternity leave for 6 months in the public sector, and an enabling environment for breastfeeding in the private sector. Advocacy for paid paternity leave must also continue to ensure full participation of both parents in the early moments of the child.