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Breast milk: Nature’s gift to babies

•As the world concluded the 2017 World Breastfeeding Week, experts list benefits that breast milk offers for children and dads, writes Tessy Igomu

He is vivacious, has a captivating personality and an endearing smile. To everyone, two-year-old Omoniyi Ojo is not just an adorable tot but also a wiz kid, with high intellegence quotient (IQ).

At an age when most kids could barely piece comprehensible words together, he can comfortably communicate his needs, and his academic brilliance has left many speechless. His mother, Funmilayo, usually wastes no time in attributing her child’s perceived uniqueness to his six-month exclusive breastfeeding.

Breast milk is nature’s free and precious gift to mammals to nurture their young. That is why experts advocate that breast milk is best for a baby, as its benefits extend well beyond basic nutrition. From the first few days after birth, a mother is always advised to suckle her child.

The importance of breastfeeding and its role in babies’ development explains why it is now on the front burner, globally. The first week of August has been set aside for the annual commemoration of the World Breastfeeding Week, to encourage breastfeeding and improve the health of babies around the world.  It was first celebrated in 1992 by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) and is now observed in over 120 countries by UNICEF, WHO and their partners.

Protection against diseases

Researchers stress that breastfeeding’s protection against illness lasts beyond a baby’s breastfeeding stage. Also, studies have shown that breastfeeding can reduce a child’s risk of developing certain childhood cancers. However, scientists don’t know exactly how breast milk reduces the risk, but they think antibodies in breast milk might give a baby’s immune system a boost.

Although medical authorities like the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP), the American Medical Association (AMA), WHO and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists believe that breast milk is the best nutritional choice for infants, it may not be possible for all women. To some women, the decision to breastfeed or not is based on comfort, lifestyle and specific health conditions.

Daily Sun gathered that, before now, breastfeeding was the only culturally acceptable mode of feeding for babies in Africa. In Nigeria in particular, infants and children are breastfed within the first two years of life, except when some serious health reasons are involved. In some African societies, breastfeeding used to be a thing of pride and it was even regarded a taboo for a mother not to breastfeed her child. In some rare cases, if an infant loses its mother at birth, it is usually breastfed by relations who re-lactate to do so, or by their grandmothers. However, this practice is gradually being eroded, as westernisation has made many Nigerian women to practically discard what was culturally seen as a child’s right.

According to the National Demographic Health Survey (NDHS) 2003, the rate of exclusive breastfeeding was put at 17 per cent.

Unfortunately, NDHS said the rate dropped to 13 per cent in 2008. This drastic fall, experts said, could be one of the many reasons for high child mortality in the country.

Former minister of health in Nigeria, Prof. Christian Onyebuchi Chukwu, noted that the rate at which women breastfeed has decreased drastically, and the trend does not augur well for the health of the average Nigerian baby.

He said, “Breast milk contains antibodies that help a baby fight off viruses and bacteria. Babies who are breastfed exclusively for the first six months, without any formula, have fewer ear infections, respiratory illnesses, allergies and diarrhoea. They also have fewer hospitalisations and trips to the doctor, as there are antibodies that protect an infant at birth. Breastfeeding goes a long way to prevent a number of childhood diseases.”

A UNICEF’s executive director, Ann Veneman, while in Nigeria, highlighted the need for improvements in child health and nutrition. According to her, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life is critical.

“Under-nutrition is an underlying cause in one-third of all under-five deaths. During the first six months of life, breast milk completely meets an infant’s nutritional requirements. Yet, only 13 per cent of children in Nigeria are exclusively breastfed from birth to six months of age,” she said.

Experts recommend breastfeeding exclusively, with no formula, juice or water for six months. Even if a mother breastfeeds less than the recommended months, it’s advisable to breastfeed for a short time than not at all. Beyond that, breastfeeding is encouraged for at least 12 months, and longer, if both the mother and baby are willing.

However, for mothers who are unable to breastfeed or who decide not to, infant formula is a healthy alternative. Even though formula is also said to provide babies with the nutrients children need to grow and thrive, experts contend that nothing can duplicate the properties of breast milk, no matter how many vitamins, minerals and other supplements are added to what is basically a chemical formulation.

Experts equally maintain that during the first few days after birth, a woman’s breasts make the ideal first milk, called colostrum. It is thick, yellowish and scant, but well loaded to meet a baby’s nutritional needs. Colostrum also helps a newborn’s digestive tract to fully develop in preparation to digest breast milk.

In addition to containing all the vitamins and nutrients needed in the first six months of life, breast milk is packed with disease-fighting substances that protect a baby from illness. The May 2010 edition of Paediatrics, an international magazine, published a study showing that babies who are breastfed are less likely to have fevers after immunisations than babies who are fed with formulas.

Ijeoma Nwagba, a paediatrician and nutritionist with one of Nigeria’s apex hospitals, said breast milk, among other things, provides the ideal nutrition for infants. It has a nearly perfect mix of vitamins, protein and fat that a baby needs to grow. These are also provided in a form more easily digestible than infant formula.

“Breastfeeding may also help children avoid a host of diseases that strike later in life, such as Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and inflammatory bowel disease. In fact, preemies, babies born prematurely, given breast milk as babies are less likely to have high blood pressure by the time they’re teenagers. For babies who are not breastfed, researchers have documented a link between lack of breastfeeding and later development of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis,” she said.

Breast milk boosts IQ

The controversy over breastfeeding’s influence on intelligence might have been settled, affirming the claim to be the truth, as various researches appear to have found a connection between it and cognitive development. For instance, researchers at Baby Centre, an online parenting portal, found out that more than 17,000 infants aged 0 – 6 years, had higher IQ scores. They also found out that other intelligence tests showed that prolonged and exclusive breastfeeding significantly improved cognitive development. 

Another study carried out by researchers and published on the same portal indicated that almost 4,000 children showed that babies who were breastfed had significantly higher scores on a vocabulary test at five years of age than children who were not breastfed. And the scores were higher the longer they were nursed with breast milk.

Fathers too can benefit

Just as there are inherent benefits for the baby, the father, according to research, can also benefit from the woman’s breast milk. According to an online media, Allwell, breastfeeding could potentially boost a father’s immune system as well as his nutritional status.

But in breastfeeding the man, the woman must take certain steps to ensure that there’s no infection to avoid the risk of transmission to the baby. Doctors also suggest feeding the baby first while the other breast might be reserved for the father.

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