Infant mortality has remained a very serious malady for our country since independence. Assam on the other hand has earned a very bad name over the past two decades or more for having one of the highest Infant Mortality Rates among all states of the country. The government and developmental agencies like UNICEF have identified a number of reasons behind this high IMR in Assam as well as several other states. While one reason has been the high prevalence of anaemia among adolescent girls and young women who in turn give birth to babies with poor health, failure of mothers as well as families to ensure that a new-born is fed exclusively on mother’s milk is also another major reason.
The entire global community had just observed World Breast-feeding Week from August 1 to August 7, with governments across the world trying to tell the communities about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding to new-born babies so that the very basic foundation of a child becomes stronger from the point of view of health and immunity. World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated in order to encourage mothers as well as her immediate family as well as the community in general to breastfeed their babies and improve the health of babies around the world. It was in August 1990 that government policymakers, WHO, UNICEF and other organizations had signed an international declaration to protect, promote and support breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding is undoubtedly the best possible way to provide new-born babies and infants with the basic nutrients they require in the first six months of their lives. World Health Organisation has recommended exclusive breastfeeding starting within one hour after birth until a baby is six months old. Nutritious complementary foods should then be added while continuing to breastfeed for up to two years or beyond. But for decades the communities have neglected this aspect, with both mothers and other family members often trying to dismiss advice of doctors that a baby should not be fed anything else but mother’s milk during the first six months of its life on earth.
This year, World Health Organisation has been working with UNICEF and other partners including the governments to promote the importance of helping mothers take to exclusive breastfeeding of their new-born babies within that crucial first hour of life. Skin-to-skin contact along with suckling at the breast stimulates the production of breast-milk, including colostrums – which is also called the baby’s ‘first vaccine’- which is extremely rich in nutrients and antibodies that protects the baby.
Breastfeeding in fact has reached its new low in the 21st century. According to WHO, the most countries across the globe – including India – have an exclusive breastfeeding rate of below 50% in the first 6 months, which is the 2025 target of the World Health Organisation. A series of evidence-based research has brought to light the urgent importance of breastfeeding time and again. Vital nutrition supply to a baby in the first one thousand days of life, starting from conception to 2nd birthday, lays the foundation of the long-term health. Breastfeeding is an essential part of this initial nutrition as breast milk is a multi-facet combination of nutrients and bioactive markers that are essential for a newborn in the initial 6 months of life. Nutritional deficiencies early in life can result in long-lasting effects that can pass on to generations.
Children who are not breastfed exclusively are prone to infections and have a low IQ. They have a diminished capacity to learn and perform poorly in school in comparison to those who are breastfed exclusively in the first six months of life. According to WHO, more than 20 million infants are born weighing less than 2.5 kg per year, sadly over 96% of them in developing countries. These infants are at increased risk of early growth retardation, infectious disease, developmental delay and death during infancy and childhood. There is enough evidence that highlight the importance of breastfeeding in the first 24 hours of life in these infants. Infants who are breastfed in the first 24 hours show a lower neonatal mortality than infants who are breastfed after 24 hours.
New evidence has shown that breastfeeding is equally important to mothers and provides many short-term and long-term benefits. Immediate and early benefits for mothers include postpartum weight loss and mother-infant bonding. Pregnancy results in many physiological changes to support the new life in the womb. During pregnancy, the body goes in a hyper-lipidemic and insulin-resistant state, which increases chances of developing cardiovascular diseases and type-2 diabetes later in life. Breastfeeding has shown to decrease risk of long-term metabolic and cardiovascular diseases and is associated with 4–12% reduction in the risk of type-2 diabetes.
Encouraging breastfeeding is the need of the hour to ensure a healthy future for the next generations. World Breastfeeding Week is definitely a remarkable initiative; however, just one week will not solve the problem for India which ranks lowest among South-east Asian nations in breastfeeding practices with only 44% infants having access to breastfeeding in the initial hour of the life. A collective effort by the government and society is needed to improve breastfeeding practices. To provide a favorable environment to nursing mothers, the government has to show commitment to building nursing rooms in public places and society needs to stop treating public nursing as taboo.