Nigerian mothers fare badly in the exclusive breastfeeding of infants. A recent report by the United Nations Children’s Fund and the World Health Organisation noted that over 70 per cent of infants in Nigeria are denied exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of their lives. This has dire health and developmental implications for infants. The federal and state governments should therefore adopt strong actions to encourage exclusive breastfeeding in the country.
Citing research findings, the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care says breastfeeding provides a baby with all the nutrition it needs in the first six months and influences lifelong health for both mother and child. It is a sustainable and natural option for infant feeding and helps ensure food security for babies across all populations.
Experts add that breastfeeding sets up a baby’s immune system. It decreases its risk of many illnesses and cuts a mother’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer later in life. Mothers who are not able to feed their babies at the breast can still give expressed or donor breast milk to ensure a strong nutritional start to life, they say.
Breastfeeding is the natural first food for babies, but it can be challenging because everyone’s breastfeeding journey is different. For the working-class woman, who needs to rise early for work and take her children to school, it may be a herculean task. Therefore, a supportive environment is needed to facilitate exclusive breastfeeding for every nursing mother. State governments should roll out effective policies providing the necessary support.
Health experts warn that when the breast is full and not expended, the nipples become painful, and the mother is at higher risk of ovarian cancer, among other diseases. It is a woman’s right to breastfeed in public and women must overcome their shyness to do so. Society should create a supportive environment for mothers to perform this all-important task.
This year’s international breastfeeding week (August 1–7) theme was ‘Step up for Breastfeeding,’ emphasising the need for countries like Nigeria to allocate increased resources to promote, protect and support breastfeeding policies and programmes, especially for the most vulnerable families living in emergency situations and war-prone areas.
Breastfeeding awareness programmes should return. Government must fund public enlightenment programmes to explain its importance. Worldwide, only four out of 10 children are exclusively breastfed in the first six months, according to UNICEF. Highest rates were found in Rwanda 86.9 per cent; Burundi 82.3 per cent; Sri Lanka 82 per cent, and Solomon Islands 76.2 per cent. In Nigeria, it is just 23 per cent, according to the International Breastfeeding Journal. Officials put the rate in Katsina State at 21.3 per cent. This is too poor, and dangerous. Suboptimal breastfeeding has been found to be responsible for 96 per cent of deaths among children under 12 months of age in developing countries.
According to PubMed Central, a digital repository of the United States National Center for Biotechnology Information, early initiation of breast milk within an hour, and exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of a child’s life is critical for infant survival. Exclusive breastfeeding also reduces the risk of diarrhoea, pneumonia, and other infectious diseases.
The infant mortality rate is one of the most sensitive and commonly used indicators of the social and economic developments of a population. Despite the significant progress made in improving child survival in recent years at national levels, infant mortality remains high in some localities in sub-Saharan Africa.
Nigeria’s current infant mortality rate, according to figures from the Ministry of Health, is 56,220 deaths per 1,000 live births. Although this is a 2.56 per cent decline from the 2021 figure, which was 57,701 deaths per 1,000 live births, it is unacceptable.
Many studies have shown that among several predictors of infant survival, including place of residence, maternal illiteracy, maternal marital status and birth interval for the index child, time of initiation of breast milk, exclusive breastfeeding is an important factor.
The Nigerian government at all levels must support exclusive breastfeeding for babies until six months of age. Parents may introduce solid foods with breastfeeding thereafter until 12 months of age, and beyond. Public enlightenment is crucial, especially for women in the rural areas where most Nigerians reside.
During emergencies, including those in Afghanistan, Yemen, Ukraine, the Horn of Africa, and the Sahel, the WHO says breastfeeding guarantees a safe, nutritious, and accessible food source for babies and young children. This is relevant in Nigeria today where terrorism and banditry have displaced hundreds of thousands into refugee camps. There should be strong support for nursing mothers in the camps.
All stakeholders in the health sector should collaborate to forge a better path for nursing mothers. Companies and faith-based organisations should be encouraged make crèches available on their premises; local governments in the urban areas can establish and equip breastfeeding centres for mothers, near markets, malls, and business districts. UNICEF recommends paid parental leave and breastfeeding breaks for public and private sector employees.
Only 12 per cent of countries worldwide provide adequate paid maternity leave, says the International Labour Organisation. Nigerian law mandates paid maternity leave (12 weeks) for nursing mothers. While some pay full salaries, many employers take advantage of the law that “at least 50 per cent of the salary” is paid and accordingly place beneficiaries on half-pay during the period. UNICEF urges governments and businesses to “strive for at least nine months of combined paid leave.” The Czech Republic (28 weeks), Hungary (24 weeks), and Italy (20 weeks) have world’s highest-paid maternity leave the ILO reported.
It is said that when a woman breastfeeds a child, she saves the country from losing a potential part of its human resource and capacity. This is because studies have also shown that children who are breastfed exclusively turn out to be smarter, more organised, and stable, productive adults in life.
Nigeria should revive its national breastfeeding campaign. Backed by the Federal Government with grants, international alliances and their foreign aid, states and LGs should pursue programmes to radically enhance exclusive breastfeeding among Nigerian mothers.
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