Breastfeeding gives children the best start in life

Only 44 per cent of the world’s newborns are put to the breast within one hour of birth. Even fewer infants under six months of age are exclusively breastfed.

Globally, less than 40 per cent of children under six months of age are fed only breastmilk with no additional foods or liquids, including water. Despite impressive gains in a number of countries over the last decade, global breastfeeding rates have seen only slow progress since 1995.

In the Philippines, the National Demographic Health Survey of 2013 shows only about half of children are breastfed within the first hour of birth. Meanwhile, the Food and Nutrition Research Institute says only 28% of children aged five months  remain exclusively breastfed.

UNICEF data show that the progress in getting more newborns breastfed within the first hour of life has been slow over the past 15 years. This despite the fact that breastfeeding is a cornerstone of children’s survival, nutrition and early development and is explicitly recognized by the International Convention on the Rights of the Child as a key component of every child’s human right to the highest attainable standard of health.

Breastfeeding is of critical importance, as it not only provides children with the best start in life, it also benefits maternal health, protects against non-communicable diseases and contributes to environmental sustainability.

From the first hour of a baby’s life through age two or later, breastfeeding protects him against illness and death. Suboptimal breastfeeding practices resulted in more than 800,000 deaths among children under five years of age in 2011. Immediate skin to skin contact and breastfeeding within the first hour of life significantly reduces newborn mortality.

Breastfeeding is essential for early childhood development as it supports healthy brain development, increased I.Q scores, and better school performance.

Breastfeeding benefits maternal health by improving birth spacing and reducing the risk of post-partum haemorrhage.

Women who breastfeed have a decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancers and of some cardiovascular diseases.

Breastfeeding decreases the risk of non-communicable diseases, including childhood asthma, obesity, and diabetes and heart disease later in life.

Breastfeeding provides a natural, renewable food that needs no packaging, transportation, storage, or cooking, making it environmentally friendly.

When a population with limited access to health systems and infrastructure relies on breastfeeding, it mitigates inequities in access to health services.

One of the recommended evidence-based actions to improve breastfeeding rates is to support paid maternity leave and to encourage and support women to breast-feed in the workplace. The Expanded Breastfeeding Act (RA 10028 of 2009) requires the provision of workplace breastfeeding support for working women so that they can continue to breastfeed their children even when they go back to work.

“Much has to be done to improve the support we provide to breastfeeding mothers – in changing behaviours and making breastfeeding the norm. Strong legislation and policies have a crucial role, too. They lay the needed framework for action and remove system bottlenecks to essential service delivery,” UNICEF Philippines Representative Lotta Sylwander.

Sylwander added that UNICEF continues to work with government and civil society partners to strengthen mechanisms to improve implementation of the existing laws and push for the formulation of policies that further protect, support and promote breastfeeding; to enable more mothers and children to reap its benefits. (Source: UNICEF report)