World Breastfeeding Week may be over for the rest of the world, but the Union Health Ministry has announced plans to make it a monthly fixture in India to raise awareness of the health benefits of breastfeeding.
During an event last week, Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan announced that a breastfeeding awareness week will be observed each month in India until 2022 to raise awareness of the practice, which he deemed “a shared societal responsibility.” He added that the onus should not be solely on the mother, but on “all in her family, community and also at [her] workplace [to] support her by creating an enabling environment.”
World Breastfeeding Week is observed during the first week of August each year. Accordingly, events to promote breastfeeding and awareness of its benefits will be conducted during the first week of every month. “This involves a comprehensive set of activities on promotion and support of breastfeeding at community and facility levels, through building an enabling environment,” Vardhan said. “Reinforcing lactation support services at public health facilities through trained healthcare providers and awareness generation activities at community level are also being focused [on].
“Despite the health benefits of breastfeeding, India does not fare well when it comes to being a breastfeeding nation. While breastfeeding rates in the country are on the rise, just 41.5 percent of newborns are breastfed within the first hour of their life. It has been reported in the past that India could save the lives of almost 100,000 newborns through better breastfeeding practices.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that infants should be exclusively breastfed until the age of six months and that breastfeeding should be initiated within an hour of childbirth. “Breastfeeding is the normal way of providing young infants with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development,” the WHO asserts, further advising that breastfeeding be continued up to the age of two or afterwards.
There are numerous health benefits of breastfeeding, for both the child and their mother. Exclusive breastfeeding is associated with a lower risk of common childhood illnesses, as well as quicker recoveries. This is true of conditions such as pneumonia and diarrhoeal disease – the latter of which is the second most common cause of mortality in children under five years, as well as India’s leading cause of infectious disease outbreaks. For mothers, breastfeeding is associated with lower rates of some forms of cancer and postpartum depression among other conditions.
Despite the health benefits of breastfeeding, India does not fare well when it comes to being a breastfeeding nation. While breastfeeding rates in the country are on the rise, just 41.5 percent of newborns are breastfed within the first hour of their life. It has been reported in the past that India could save the lives of almost 100,000 newborns through better breastfeeding practices. According to Health Ministry data unveiled last week, Manipur is the best-performing state when it comes to breastfeeding. Bihar, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh are among the worst performers.
The announcement by the Union Health Ministry of a sustained breastfeeding awareness drive is a welcome announcement, with the potential to be a boon for child and maternal health. Raising breastfeeding rates through creating a more conducive environment for mothers to breastfeed their children and ensuring the public is well-informed as to the practice’s benefits will go a significant way towards improving health indicators across the country, so long as the drive does not lose momentum and the commitment of officials to making India a breastfeeding nation does not lag.