WHO highlights benefits of exclusive breastfeeding

Kathmandu, July 31

Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and continued breastfeeding up to the age of two years and beyond provides the strongest foundation for lifelong health, read a statement issued today by Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO regional director for South-East Asia, on the eve of World Breast Feeding Week held every year from August 1 to 7.

Breast milk contains all the nutrients infants need to grow healthy and strong and, when combined with appropriate complementary foods after six months of age, is a powerful means to set up a lifetime of optimal nutrition, including the prevention of under-nutrition and obesity, the statement read.

Notably, breastfeeding has been promoted as critical to infant development in the WHO South-East Asia Region for many years, with broad cultural acceptance and some of the world’s strongest legislation to encourage the practice.

These and other factors mean that on average around half of the region’s infants are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life, compared to 38 per cent globally and 18 per cent in industrialised countries. To build on the region’s impressive record and provide each of its infants the strongest foundation for lifelong health and optimal nutrition, a series of key initiatives should be implemented, Singh stated.

First, breastfeeding should be promoted across sectors and its many virtues highlighted wherever possible. That means developing campaigns that educate new mothers and support them to breastfeed, including by highlighting the benefits to mothers themselves, at the same time as enhancing public buy-in. It also means ensuring policymakers across sectors, including in the workplace, are aware that breastfeeding is a proven means to prevent under-nutrition (around 60 million children below the age of five years in the region experience stunting), as well as to combat obesity and the premature deaths.

Second, the region’s member states should harness the backing provided by the recently adopted World Health Assembly Resolution on infant and young child feeding, which urges all WHO member states “to implement and/or strengthen national mechanisms for effective implementation of measures aimed at giving effect to the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes”, the statement read.

And third, Member States and health facilities across the Region should fully embrace the WHO- and UNICEF-developed Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative. Since 1991 the Initiative has sought to create maternal and child care institutions that protect and promote breastfeeding – especially important outcomes as institutional births increase region-wide. In December 2017 WHO South-East Asia held a regional consultation on enhancing the Initiative’s uptake and implementation.

“That is especially encouraging as WHO South-East Asia marks World Breastfeeding Week. If every child was breastfed within an hour of birth, was exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life, and continued to be breastfed up to the age of two years, the lives of more than 800 000 children would be saved worldwide each year, many of them in the South-East Asia Region,” she stated.

WHO’s South-East Asia Region comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India, Indonesia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Timor-Leste.