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Breastfeeding: Health for all starts here

Despite global campaigns, many children are still missing out on the health benefits of breast milk. Graphic: WHO

It’s affordable, nutritious, readily-available and lowers the chances of allergies and asthma, all while protecting infants from infections and disease. Breast milk is all that - so why aren’t more children benefiting from breastfeeding?

Experts agree that the foundation for good health is laid early in life, and that breastfeeding gives babies an advantage when it comes to both survival and performance later in life. Despite growing evidence surrounding the benefits of breastfeeding for both babies and mothers, South Africa’s breastfeeding rates remain low.

According to the 2016 South Africa Demographic and Health Survey, only 32% of the country’s children under the age of six months are exclusively breastfed, while only 19% of children between 18 and 23 months are still breastfed. Although the exclusive breastfeeding figure is an improvement from the recorded 18% in 2003, it remains clear that South Africa still has a long way to go in promoting breastfeeding and its benefits.

Breast milk contains immunity-boosting antibodies and healthy enzymes that scientists have yet to replicate or recreate. These nutrients are important in protecting a baby against infectious and chronic diseases, both in infancy and later in life. More so, exclusive breastfeeding reduces infant mortality caused by common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea or pneumonia, and facilitates a quicker recovery when a baby falls ill.

The theme for World Health Day 2019, observed on April 7, is ‘Health for All’. Healthy populations can be ensured by giving babies get a healthy start to life so that they can live long enough to grow past infancy.

Breastfeeding increases a child’s chance of survival. A study by Sanker et al notes that “there is a higher rate of mortality among infants who have never been breastfed, in comparison to infants who have been exclusively breastfed at least for six months after birth, and beyond.” A 2018 report by WHO and UNICEF on early initiation of breastfeeding sampled 72 countries, including South Africa, and came to a similar conclusion: “Improving breastfeeding practices could save the lives of more than 800 000 children under 5 every year.” According to the report, children in their first year of life have the most to benefit.

Both the World Health Organisation and UNICEF recommend that breastfeeding be initiated within the first hour after birth. Where possible, they also recommend that for the first six months of a baby’s life it be exclusively breastfed. This means that for the first six months a baby is given nothing but breast milk - no additional food, drink or even water is needed.

Health benefits aside, breastfeeding is also beneficial to early childhood development. Evidence shows that breastfeeding boosts brain development and is linked to healthy weight ranges, helping to protect children against obesity.

Babies, however, are not the only beneficiaries when it comes to breastfeeding - the benefits also extend to mothers. According to research by Rajiv Bahl et al breastfeeding offers protection against cancer. If practiced at a near-universal level, a staggering 20 000 deaths from breast cancer could be avoided each year. The research, which examined past and current breastfeeding trends globally, as well as short-term and long-term health consequences for the mother and child, found that women who breastfeed their babies have a lowered risk for both breast and ovarian cancer.

These women are also less likely to develop diabetes, and have an increased birthing space - meaning the time period between giving birth and falling pregnant again.

Exclusive breastfeeding, along with a healthy diet, can also aid mothers in losing the weight gained during pregnancy.

More education and awareness are needed if more children are to benefit from breast milk and its advantages.

In a statement on World Health Day, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that although enormous progress has been made in terms of health and wellness in recent years, there is still a lot of work to do. “Today, half the world’s population cannot access essential health services. Millions of women give birth without help from a skilled attendant; millions of children miss out on vaccinations against killer diseases, and millions suffer and die because they can’t get treatment for HIV, TB and malaria.”

Despite continuing challenges and inequalities, the WHO said ‘health for all’ is possible, even in countries with different income levels, where social and health systems are less than ideal. The key to this, according to WHO, is to make progress with the resources available.

And breast milk, in the majority of situations, is a resource that is available, affordable and proven to boost health and wellness in babies. Breast milk remains the building block for a child’s future health and development. It may very well be key to realising the goals of the WHO and that is “that every child survives past its fifth birthday, and that no one dies simply because they are poor”.

**All posters and graphics courtesy of the World Health Organisation.

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