1 February 2013

Tanzania: Breast Milk Saves Lives


Breastfeeding , like immunization, protects infants from a number of childhood illnesses, apart from being a crucial source of nourishment. Breast-milk stimulates and strengthens the infant's immunity to ailments.

In fact, all babies must be breastfed on demand not less than 12 times a day. I must make it clear at the outset that babies who are breastfed fully experience fewer illnesses and are better nourished. If all babies were fed only on breast milk for the first six months of life, the lives of about 1.5 million infants would be saved every year, according to Unicef estimates.

Using breast milk substitutes such as infant formula, animal's milk or other liquid food can be a threat to health. This becomes a more pronounced case if parents cannot afford sufficient substitutes -- which are quite expensive -- or do not have clean water with which to mix them.

Naturally, every mother is expected to breastfeed successfully. But I know a number of women who, as new mothers, lacked confidence to breastfeed. Among the Wakurya, Wagogo, and Waha, elderly clan women are called in to help, if a new mother fails to breastfeed. But I also know women who, as new mothers, shunned breastfeeding because the practice would flatten their stiff breasts. This is senseless and utterly unreasonable.

Breasts flatten with age - not with breastfeeding. It is women who have warped minds who protect their breasts this way. And, who said women with flat breasts are not attractive? Other women? Men? Which men?! I must point out here that women who shun breast-feeding should not make babies at all.

By denying their infants' breast milk these women commit a felony that also amounts to a cardinal sin. In fact, it is child abuse. All children should be breastfed exclusively for the first six months and should suckle until they are two years old. Breast milk is the best food a young child can have. Women who shun breastfeeding deny their babies life supporting nutrients. Animal's milk, infant formula, powdered milk; teas, sugar drinks, water and cereal foods such as porridge are inferior to breast milk.

For infants, breast milk is easy to digest and does not contain impurities or antigens. It promotes growth and development and protects the child from illness. Even along the Indian Ocean coastline where it is always hot and dry breast milk meets a baby's need for fluids. Mothers should not give water to very young infants even when they sweat.

Some parents give solid foods and water to infants as young as two months. This is a grave mistake. Solid food or drink other than breast milk increases the risk of diarrhea and other illnesses in infants. If regular weighing shows that a baby is not growing well the child may need more frequent breastfeeding.

The baby should suckle steadily for at least 15 minutes. Twelve or more feeds during a 24-hour period may be necessary. Research carried out by Unicef in rural Ghana a few years ago showed that most mothers breastfed their infants at least 21 times every 24 hours. There is no harm in this practice. Every baby should suckle on demand. Newborn babies should be tagged immediately upon birth and kept close to their mothers. They must be breastfed within one hour of birth.

A newborn baby needs to remain in skin-to skin contact with the mother as much as possible. It is good for the mother and baby to stay together in the same room or bed. The baby should be allowed to breastfeed as often as he or she wants. If a baby is allowed to breastfeed soon after birth production of his or her mother's breast milk is stimulated.

It also helps the mother's uterus to contract. This contraction reduces the risk of heavy bleeding or infection. Colostrum, the thick yellowish milk the mother produces in the first few days after birth, is the perfect food for the newborn. Colostrum is very nutritious and helps protect the baby against infections. In some tribal settings in rural Tanzania, sometimes mothers are advised not to feed colostrum to their babies. So the colostrum is expressed and discarded. This advice is incorrect.

Mothers need to know that frequent breast-feeding causes more milk to be produced. How the mother holds her baby and how the baby takes the breast are very important. Holding the baby in a good position makes it easier for the baby to take the breast properly into its mouth and suckle. From birth, the baby should breastfeed whenever he wants to. If a newborn sleeps more than three hours after breastfeeding, he may be gently awakened and offered the breast.

Crying is not a sign that the baby needs other foods or drinks. It normally means that the baby needs to be held and cuddled. Some babies need to suckle the breast for comfort. Babies will also cry when they are frightened; when they need parental protection or when they are in pain -- especially when they are ill. A child who is over six months of age needs other foods and drinks. Breastfeeding should also continue until the child is two years old.

I also wish to point out here that HIV/AIDS is a nagging problem that has rocked the noble duty of breastfeeding. There is a risk that women infected with HIV can pass the disease on to their infants through breastfeeding. Women who are infected or suspect that they may be infected should consult medical workers for testing, counseling and advice on how to reduce the risk of infecting the child. South African researchers, however, have reported that exclusive breastfeeding until a baby is six months old reduces the risk of mother-to-child HIV transmission.

They say breastfeeding carries a lower transmission risk and protects against diarrhoea and pneumonia. In the developed world, the risk of mother to child HIV transmission has been cut from 25 per cent to less than two per cent because of the use of antiretroviral therapies, exclusive formula feeding and good healthcare support. However, these benefits can be found in the developing world. Here, World Health Organization (WHO) guidance says HIV positive women who can afford to use formula, and who have the facilities they need to do so - such as heaters -- should do so.

But the researchers, from the African Centre for Health and Population Studies say this is not the case for most women in developing countries. For this reason, and because exclusive breastfeeding protects against other diseases, they suggest it is the best option. I wish everyone good parenting.

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