11 million stunted
By Sola Ogundipe & Chioma Obinna
A woman’s breasts are primarily for breastfeeding the young but despite the fact that many Nigerian women are blessed with a sizeable chest, millions of babies in the country are yearning for breastmilk.
According to scientists, all sizes of breasts can produce enough breastmilk for the baby even as it is no longer news that breastmilk is the optimal food for the developing infant.
But while almost all women can breastfeed, there are some who for one reason or another, decide not to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months even though breastfeeding is also the first line of prevention for some childhooddiseases and obesity. According to the World Health Organisation, WHO, exclusive breastfeeding means that the infant receives only breast milk and no other liquids or solids are given – not even water – with the exception of oral rehydration solution, or drops/syrups of vitamins, minerals or medicines.
According to experts, breastmilk provides a host of other health benefits for mother and child. Sadly, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, more than 5 million newborns in Nigeria are deprived of essential nutrients and antibodies that protect them from disease and death as they are not being exclusively breastfed.
The 2014 National Nutrition and Health Survey report showed that out of 7 million children born every year in the country, only 1.75 million are breastfed.
Efforts by the federal government and other stakeholders to improve the breastfeeding rate have not yielded the desired result. The 2016/2017 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, MICS, revealed that only 1.66 million children were exclusively breastfed (23.7 percent) of newborn babies are exclusively breastfed.
While many countries are boosting their exclusive breastfeeding rate, Nigeria keeps dropping. Ghana and Nigeria had exclusive breastfeeding rates of 7.4, but, by 2013, Ghana had moved up to 63 per cent. The attitude of Nigerian women to shun breastfeeding contributed largely to the country’s inability to make significant progress in exclusive breastfeeding.
However, investigations by Good Health Weekly showed that many mothers no longer breastfeed their children. Some of them confessed that breastfeeding has become more of a burden than a joy. Several of them who are working mothers claimed that the fact that they have to return to work soon after giving birth makes breastfeeding inconvenient and tasking.
A mother who works in a corporate organization said: “I would have loved to breastfeed but I intend to keep my breast firm.”
Although many women like her have jettisoned the role of exclusive breastfeeding to keep their breasts firm, experts say worrying about breasts sagging or become unattractive is a waste of time as the only way to keep firm, upright breasts throughout your lifetime is to never get pregnant and never get old. However, other women like Sade Ogun who have developed apathy for breastfeeding identified urbanisation, globalisation and work-life imbalance as factors discouraging women from breastfeeding.
Health watchers worry that if the trend continues, the unacceptable level of malnutrition among Nigerian children will worsen.
Currently, Nigeria is home to 11 million stunted children and second highest stunting burden in the world.
Preliminary data from MICS 2011 showed stunting as 35 percent while MICS 2016-17 showed stunting to have increased to 44 percent.
In the views of a Nutritionist, with Alive & Thrive, a project of FHI360, Dr. Sylvester Igbedioh the increasing calls for urgent action.
Igbedioh, said: “Infants and young children need the right foods at the right time to grow and develop to their full potential.
“The most critical time for good nutrition is in the first 1,000 days from the start of a woman’s pregnancy until a child’s second birthday.
“Breastmilk is a crucial food for children’s health and development during this critical window.
“It provides all of the vitamins, minerals, enzymes and antibodies that children need to grow and thrive in the first 6 months of life, and continues to be a pivotal part of their diet up to the age of 2 or beyond.”
Igbedioh while quoting from 2003 Lancet study said exclusive breastfeeding is one of the interventions that can reduce child mortality by 13 percent.
Arguing why women should embrace exclusive breastfeeding, he said breastfed children have at least 6 times greater chance of survival in the early months than non-breastfed children.
“An exclusively breastfed child is 14 times less likely to die in the first six months than a non-breastfed child. If 90 percent of mothers exclusively breastfed their infants for the first six months of life, an estimated 13 percent of child deaths could be averted,” he added.
Continuing, he added that if the same proportion of mothers provided adequate and timely complementary feeding for their infants from 6 to 24 months, a further 6 percent of child deaths could be prevented.
He maintained that investing in breastfeeding saves lives and provides a high return on investment.
On steps to a successful breastfeeding, the Technical Advisor, Policy and Advocacy, Alive& Thrive, Mrs. Toyin Adewale-Gabriel advised that pregnant women and their families should be counseled about the benefits of breastfeeding during an antenatal clinic visit.
Adewale-Gabriel added that there is need to establish uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact between mothers and infants immediately after birth.
Continuing, she said: “Health workers should ensure that all mothers are supported to initiate breastfeeding immediately (within the first hour) after delivery.
“Mothers should be discouraged from giving any food or fluids other than breast milk, unless medically indicated.”
She argued that every maternity facility providing newborn care services should practice “rooming – in” throughout after delivery, day and night.