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Breastfeeding promotion: A social responsibility

India is on the road to becoming one of the leading nations of the world, in terms of economic liberalisation, politics of democracy, nuclear capability, information technology, advances in medical science, and recognition of the mental and technical capabilities of its scientists. India also has the dubious distinction of belonging to the billion-population club, and of having one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, which stands at 69, as compared to 7.1 in US, and 4.3 in Japan. India contributes to 40 per cent of the malnourished-child population in the world, and 53 per cent of all Indian children under the age of four years are undernourished. Among the many causes of the sorry state of health of our children are poverty, illiteracy, large family size, inadequate implementation of health and family planning policies, inadequate health infrastructure, ignorance of parents regarding child nutrition (including breastfeeding), unethical promotion of artificial milk and cereals, and the apathetic attitude of health professionals and health workers towards patient and community education.

UNICEF estimates that the world over, 1.5 million infants die every year, of diarrhoea, directly related to bottle-feeding. In India, in spite of oral dehydration treatment and antibiotics (where necessary), diarrhoea continues to be an important cause of infant mortality. Added to this are deaths due to acute respiratory infections and asthma.

These are the result of artificial feeding (animal milk or powder milk) and bottle-feeding. Studies by organisations like, UNICEF, WHO, BPNI (Breastfeeding promotion network of India) and ACASH (Association for consumers' action on safety and health) have shown that breastfeeding rates have declined in our community (all sections) and that bottle-feeding and formula feeding have increased tremendously.

In addition to the various reasons mentioned above, an important reason is the impact of the audio-visual and the print media that glorify artificial feeding. If breastfeeding were promoted and advocated, millions of infants would be saved from death and malnutrition.

There is no doubt about the fact that nature provided mammals with breast milk to nourish their newborns. Each mammal's milk is specifically designed to complete the needs of its infant, which is true for human infant too.

A human infant's nutritional (growth), immunological (anti-infective), mental (brain development) and emotional (bonding) needs are entirely met with, by mother's milk. Colostrum, which is the sticky discharge produced by breasts immediately after delivery of the baby contains immunoglobulins and anti-infective cells that provide a newborn cover against most common infections and allergies. Colostrum is discarded in many communities, which is a wrong and harmful practice.
Mature milk that comes-in anytime between the second and the seventh day takes care of an infant's hunger, as well as thirst, which comprises of water to the extent of 95 per cent.

Thus an infant needs nothing (including water, vitamins, extra milk, liquid diet, ayurvedic preparations etc) except breastmilk for the first six months of his life. Anything besides breastmilk given to the infant may prove to be harmful. The proteins in breastmilk ensure optimal growth, the fats are just right (obviating the risk of heart disease in later life that is associated with animal milk), and the lactose provides energy, as well as ensuring optimal brain development, as does the aminoacid Taurine.

Breastfed children have been found on an average, to score higher on intelligence tests than non-breastfed children, and they fare better in school. This is due in a large measure to the emotional bonding and security that arises out of the closeness of a mother and her baby while breastfeeding. Factually, breastfeeding binds the whole family together. Breastmilk also provides adequate vitamins and minerals, including calcium, phosphorus and iron, for an infant's development.

Breastfeeding costs a family next to nothing. As breastmilk is produced at the mother's expense, even an undernourished mother produces enough to satisfy her infant's needs. A mother who breastfeeds, needs hardly any extra nourishment. Except, if she is a poor and undernourished mother (to replace her depleting reserves). The fat that accumulates during the nine months of pregnancy is lost by breastfeeding. The other benefits that a mother derives from breastfeeding are,

Reduced risk of ovarian and breast cancers
Early stoppage of post delivery blood loss
Reduced risk of anaemia and osteoporosis
The feeling of confidence that arises from being a nourisher, provider and protector.
Exclusive breastfeeding is a good method of family planning too, as the high Prolactin hormone levels in a lactating mother's blood reduces her fertility for the first few months after delivery.
Bottle-feeding predisposes an infant to
Acute and persistent diarrhoea
Respiratory tract infections
Ear infections
Respiratory and skin allergies
Insulin dependent diabetes mellitus
Atherosclerotic heart disease.
Artificial feeding is an enormous strain on the mother and the family, in terms of money, energy and time, not to mention the cost of medical treatment of illnesses caused by bottle-feeding. A mother who does not breastfeed runs the risk of getting pregnant again very soon. Poor mothers dilute the formula in order to economise, and end up with undernourished and ill infants.

Breastmilk is without doubt the best start in life that a human infant can receive. It is the responsibility of all sections of society to ensure that every mother breastfeeds her infant exclusively for six months, and then continues to breastfeed for as long as possible, along with other foods.

This responsibility rests on the government, political leaders, the municipal corporation, maternity facilities, doctors, nurses, social workers, women's organisations, religious leaders, women's employers and the common man.

Left to their own devices all mothers wish to breastfeed. They need support in the form of correct information, help in initiating breastfeeding, moral and physical support from their family and healthcare providers, and adequate breastfeeding leave from their workplace. Breastfeeding is a mother's right. Her right must be respected and protected by the state.

Dr Sailesh Gupta, an MD in paediatrics, is also a secretary of the Mumbai branch of Indian Academy of Paediatrics and of BPNI, Maharashtra. Dr Gupta has being organising many breastfeeding celebrations and the distinction of participating in the lactation management workshops in Mumbai. Here he outlines the importance of breastfeeding and its benefits

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Disclaimer: All material provided at is provided for educational and informational purposes only. Consult with your doctor regarding the advisability of any opinions or recommendations with respect to your individual situation.