Blogger Jennifer James has visited mothers and babies all over the world.
Today for World Breastfeeding Week, she explains how in the early months and years of a child's life, breastfeeding can truly be lifesaving!
When I visit low- and middle-income countries like Ethiopia, Zambia, the Philippines, and Tanzania, I am always heartened by the number of mothers I see breastfeeding their babies. Breastfeeding for so many of these mothers is the best and most affordable way for them to nourish their babies. While every mother does not breastfeed to be sure, the sheer number of mothers I see breastfeeding at local clinics, while walking with their baby strapped to them or taking a break on a city bench, gives me hope.
But despite recent efforts to destigmatize breastfeeding, numbers have stagnated, with just 40 percent of mothers breastfeeding in the developing world. In fact, only one in three infants less than six months of age is exclusively breastfed. That is why it is vitally important to continue spreading awareness about the benefits of breastfeeding, especially for babies who are born and live in low-resource settings.
This week marks the annual World Breastfeeding Week, where mothers and global health advocates express the critical importance of breastfeeding from the first hour after birth up to at least two years. Poor breastfeeding practices contribute to the death of more 800,000 children annually. Breastfeeding reduces the chance that a baby will get diarrhea, pneumonia, or both, two of the leading causes of death in children under the age of five according to UNICEF. Without a doubt, breastfeeding saves lives.
Breastfeeding also makes women healthier. The World Health Organization has said that women who breastfeed have a reduced chance of getting breast and ovarian cancer. Additionally, women who exclusively breastfeed for 6 months have a 98 percent less chance of becoming pregnant again during that time than women who do not. This is important because according to The Lancet, in developing countries, the risk of prematurity and low birth weight doubles when conception occurs within 6 months of a previous birth.
The reasons women do not breastfeed are numerous. In some places, customs prevent mothers from doing so—in parts of India, custom dictates that the “first milk” or colostrum should be entirely discarded. This is dangerous for a newborn because colostrum is rich in antibodies. There is also a global health worker shortage that can sometimes prevent women from being properly trained and encouraged to breastfeed. In addition, national policies can discourage mothers from breastfeeding.
This is where health workers like midwife Glenda B. Serato are critical, who patiently teaches mothers how to breastfeed at a brand-new clinic in Ormoc, Philippines that was reconstructed by World Vision after Typhoon Haiyan. Midwives help mothers breastfeed right after birth and during well-baby visits here, but more importantly they educate and encourage mothers that breastfeeding is best for their babies during antenatal visits, before their babies have arrived.
Clearly, breastfeeding rates will increase when these challenges are addressed and women have the knowledge and support they need from their families, communities, health systems, and governments to successfully breastfeed.
Ending preventable mother and child deaths within a generation is not impossible. The Reach Every Mother and Child Act of 2015 (S. 1911) aims to do this by bringing proven, simple, and cost-effective interventions to the most vulnerable people and communities—while increasing transparency and accountability within the U.S. government. Send an email to ask your members of Congress to cosponsor this critical legislation!
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