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Breastfeeding could save 100,000 child lives a year in India

11574025 - india - circa 1984: a stamp printed in india shows woman breastfeeding a baby, circa 1984, Copyright: <a href=''>igorgolovniov / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
An Indian woman breastfeeding a child as depicted on a stamp

The lives of almost 100,000 Indian children could be saved every year, with better breastfeeding practices. This is according to a new report by the Global Breastfeeding Collective, released to mark Breastfeeding Awareness Week (August 1-7).

The report claims 830,000 deaths of children under five years could be averted globally each year if countries scaled up breastfeeding. Doing so would also reduce rates of respiratory infections by one third and diarrhoea by nearly half, and countries would make collective savings of $300 billion annually. India alone would save $14 billion.

“A cornerstone of child survival”

The World Health Organization (WHO) calls breastfeeding – in particular, exclusive breastfeeding – “a cornerstone of child survival and child health.” To this end, it recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, followed by mixed feeding until the child is at least two years old. On the benefits of breastfeeding, the WHO says

“breast milk promotes sensory and cognitive development and protects the infant against chronic and infectious diseases. Exclusive breastfeeding reduces the risk of child mortality due to common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea and pneumonia, and helps for a quicker recovery.”

Breastfeeding is also said to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, obesity later in life (though this is disputed) and conditions such as asthma and allergies. Health benefits further extend to the mother. Breastfeeding is believed to reduce the risk of developing breast, ovarian and uterine cancer, postpartum depression, diabetes, and osteoporosis.

No country meets breastfeeding standards

Despite the health benefits of breastfeeding, no country meets the minimum support standards for breastfeeding adopted in 2012 by the World Health Assembly (WHA). The WHA calls for a 50 percent exclusive breastfeeding rate by 2025.

By Matt Daigle ( [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons
International Breastfeeding Symbol.
India’s scorecard on the topic leaves much to be desired. Its performance is poor in areas such as donor funding for breastfeeding programmes, availability of maternal health services and the status of paid maternity leave. The issue is compounded by a lack of publicly available data regarding community breastfeeding and infant and young child feeding (IYCF) counselling.

Progress in India

Its largely dismal scorecard notwithstanding, India’s breastfeeding rates are on the rise. This is accompanied by declining rates of maternal and infant mortality.

54.9 percent of infants are exclusively breastfed within the first six months of their birth at present, compared to 46 percent a decade ago. This is compared to the low and middle-income country (LMIC) average of 37 percent. Meanwhile, 41.6 percent of India’s children are breastfed within an hour of being born (another WHO recommendation) – compared to just 23.4 percent a decade ago. It was reported in 2013 that breastfeeding within the first hour after birth could save 95 babies every hour.

The Indian government is taking steps to capitalise upon this progress. The Mother’s Absolute Affection (MAA) initiative was launched by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in August last year, as part of the National Health Mission to promote breastfeeding. MAA aims to

“build an enabling environment for breastfeeding through awareness generation activities, targeting pregnant and lactating mothers, family members and society in order to promote optimal breastfeeding practices…reinforce lactation support services at public health facilities through trained healthcare providers and through skilled community health workers [and] to incentivize and recognize those health facilities that show high rates of breastfeeding along with processes in place for lactation management.”

Some legislative progress

A maternity leave bill secured passage through the Indian parliament earlier this year. The bill extends paid maternal leave from 12 to 26 weeks. This places India in the top sixteen countries with longest paid maternal leave.

The status of maternity leave was an area on the breastfeeding scorecard where India registered a poor reading. Studies indicate, “if new mothers delay their time of return to work, the duration of breastfeeding…may lengthen.”

Such changes are welcome initiatives, indicating the willingness of the Indian government to take steps. The Collective’s findings show breastfeeding can make a difference to health outcomes for children and mothers. This can be in both the short and long term.

India is taking this to heart and putting it into action. These actions could bolster the country’s indicators on maternal and infant health and mortality in the coming years.

The report by the Global Breastfeeding Collective is available here.

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