BREAST FEEDING AND THE FUTURE OF THE HUMAN RACE
By Femi Olugbile
It caused a bit of a sensation the other day when a group of eminent looking ladies were seen marching from the Ikeja Mall all the way to the grounds of Lagos Television complex. They wore orange vests and carried a huge banner. They were members of the Nigerian Association of Women Journalists (NAWOJ). They were marching to support the breast feeding of infant babies, in celebration of the 2021 World Breastfeeding Week.
To the untutored eye, it might have seemed that the journalists should have more substantial issues to worry about.
In reality, there are very few public health issues that carry more portentous implications for the future of the human race than whether mothers give their babies the breast, early enough, and for long enough.
Sadly, in Nigeria, as in many other countries of the world, largely due to ignorance and faulty work and cultural practices, mothers do not give their babies the breast early enough, or long enough.
Forty years ago, the World Health Organisation and UNICEF felt alarmed about the pervasive erosion in enthusiasm among mothers to breastfeed their babies due to an aggressive marketing drive by multinational manufacturers of popular ‘infant formulas’ and ‘baby foods’. In the most deprived environments, people often mixed these ‘formulas’ improperly or unhygienically, and babies were regularly malnourished and prone to diarrhoeal and other diseases.
At the 34th session of the World Health Assembly, in 1981, an international code, applicable in all member nations of WHO, was set out to guide the sales and promotions of manufactured breast milk substitutes. The code stipulates that governments have a duty to ensure that correct information, stating that breast milk is the ideal food for babies, preferable to any ‘substitute’ or ‘complement’, is passed to the general public. It further states that there should be no advertising of breast milk substitutes to the public. Manufacturers and distributors of breast milk substitutes should not be allowed to disseminate information materials or make donations of ‘samples’ of their products to pregnant women or nursing mothers without strict supervision of professionals who are able to give appropriate information. They should not distribute articles such as household utensils while promote the brand of a ‘substitute’. Hospitals and other health facilities should not be used for promoting breast ‘infant fomulas’. ‘Professional service representatives’ and ‘mothercraft nurses’ representing manufacturers or distributors of substitutes should not be permitted in public or private health facilities. No financial or other inducement should be offered by manufacturers to health workers to promote their products to their patients. All labels on breast milk substitutes should contain a clear message that breast milk is superior to any substitute, and that the substitute should only be used under the direction of a health worker. Different countries were encouraged to make their own local laws to restrict the unethical promotion of substitutes and encourage mothers to breastfeed.
That breastmilk is the ideal ‘natural’ food for a baby is incontestable and has been long attested by experts. The advantages to the baby include getting all the rich nourishment it requires to thrive, getting an adequate fluid intake, and getting a good immune system that protects it from infection. The value for the psychological development of the baby is immense too, as it enjoys the safety of a warm and nurturing relationship and learns to love and trust.
For the mother, the physical proximity of the baby and putting it to the breast within the first hour of life – the so-called ‘golden hour’ – helps the milk to flow, along with a rush of affectionate bonding that joins mother and child in a life-long relationship. No implements such as bottles are generally required, and it is usually easy to keep the transaction free of infection.
It is said to be ideal that a baby is breastfed exclusively for six months, and then in conjunction with ‘weaning’ foods till the age of two years.
Despite some recent improvement, Nigeria still has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. A lot of the mortality is due to infection, and poor nutrition is a major contributor to such vulnerability.
Forty years after the ‘Code’, it is still a struggle all over the world to get a majority of mothers to breastfeed appropriately. The problems are legion. In many countries, as in most of Nigeria, except Lagos, the maternity leave is three months, not six. In many workplaces, there are no creches or nurseries where babies may be safely kept so that mothers can dash off from the desk periodically to breastfeed them. Sometimes the breastmilk does not flow well, and the mother may not get good professional advice. And – a particular source of concern among smart and elegant young ladies in Lagos, the mother worries, wrongly, that prolonged breastfeeding will make her breasts flat and less attractive.
Only about one in four mothers in Nigeria breastfeed their babies adequately. In Europe the figure is closer to one in three. Everywhere there is need for improvement to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
At the conclusion of the Women Journalists walk in Ikeja, they sat down to listen to a lecture on Breastfeeding from Professor Elizabeth Disu, the moving force of an NGO named Abiye Maternal and Child Health Foundation (AMCH). AMCH, like a few others on the ground, has been very vocal and active in advocacy and training for the welfare of mothers and infants, and is pushing to improve child survival and well-being in Nigeria. In the course of the International Breastfeeding Week, the NGO would visit mothers in Amuwo Odofin, Ikorodu, and Ikeja, and organize an international webinar to ginger up awareness.
In the words of the slogan for the World Breastfeeding Week 2021, protecting breastfeeding is a shared responsibility, from doctors, to journalists, as well as to market women.