Breastfeeding can be a matter of life and death, says UNICEF

Three in five children are not breastfed within the first hour of life and this puts them at higher risk of death and disease. It also makes them less likely to continue breastfeeding, say a report by UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The report highlighted the importance of breastfeeding, stating that breast milk is the first vaccine a baby receives.

“When it comes to the start of breastfeeding, timing is everything. In many countries, it can even be a matter of life or death,” says Henrietta H. Fore, UNICEF Executive Director.

“Yet each year, millions of newborns miss out on the benefits of early breastfeeding and the reasons – all too often – are things we can change. Mothers simply don’t receive enough support to breastfeed within those crucial minutes after birth, even from medical personnel at health facilities.”

Eastern and Southern Africa have posted the highest rate of breastfeeding at 65 per cent, followed by West Africa at 40 per cent and North Africa (including the Middle East) at 35 per cent.

There are a number of issues that have been made breastfeeding challenging in a number of countries, including:

  • outdated practices in health facilities, which result in the separation of mothers and babies immediately after birth and thus missing out on the optimal breastfeeding;
  • cultural practices that involve feeding newborns supplemental foods or drinks instead of breastmilk.
  • the lack of knowledge about breastfeeding after a caesarean section;
  • missed opportunities in health facilities despite the presence of skilled health providers.

The WHO and UNICEF report further recommend the implementation of policies and programs that will promote and protect breastfeeding, especially at the first stages of life.

The report also governments, donors and other decision-makers to adopt strong measures to restrict the marketing of infant formula and other breastmilk substitutes.

Breastfeeding in Kenya

In Kenya, the rate of breastfeeding has increased from 49 per cent to 62 per cent between 2013 and 2014. This is largely because of the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative and the Baby Friendly Community Initiative by the government.

However, there are a number of challenges to achieving the  2025 target of having 50 per cent of children exclusively breastfeeding. A study indicated factors like lack of food, poor knowledge, myths and misconceptions, teenage pregnancies, and poor support in private and professional lives.

Normalising breastfeeding has been a long journey and just recently, women in Nairobi went to the streets to protest a restaurant banning a woman from breastfeeding.  Kenya is also one of the  African countries that have a law requiring companies to have lactating rooms.

There is still a need for the government in Kenya and Africa to work to improve conditions for breastfeeding.  According to Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, breastfeeding is the best way to start life.

“Breastfeeding gives children the best possible start in life. We must urgently scale up support to mothers – be it from family members, health care workers, employers and governments, so they can give their children the start they deserve,” he said.

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