by Lyndal Rowlands
Babies who are breastfed experience lifelong benefits, including increased intelligence and improved immunity, said Werner Schultink, chief of nutrition of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
“Breast milk is the most optimal food for newborns — it contains exactly the right amounts of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, minerals — it is basically completely geared towards their needs,” Schultink said in a recent interview with Xinhua.
Breastfed children are less likely to develop childhood illnesses such as pneumonia, but they are also less likely to develop diabetes or obesity later in life, he said.
Perhaps even more compelling are the cognitive benefits for children who are breastfed.
“Breastfed children on average gain three IQ points compared to peers who are not breastfed,” said Schultink, who has a PhD in human nutrition and has worked for UNICEF since 1999, referring to intelligence quotient, a score derived from one of several standardized tests designed to assess human intelligence.
However, breastfeeding doesn’t just benefit babies; mothers who breastfeed are less likely to develop breast cancer, and the cognitive and health gains associated with breastfeeding also benefit society as a whole, said Schultink.
These and many other benefits of breastfeeding were confirmed by a recent series published by The Lancet.
“The Lancet publication shows very clearly that is not one single caring practice which has such a large impact on child survival,” said Schultink, adding that breastfeeding is still important even in so-called developed countries.
“The data in the Lancet also shows that even in the United States, China, Europe the benefits of breastfeeding are incredible,” he said.
The comprehensive series covered not only the health benefits of breastfeeding but also the economic and environmental benefits.
However, globally breastfeeding rates are far too low, Schultink said, including in China where the Lancet data shows breastfeeding has decreased in recent years.
“Globally about 35 percent of children in the age of zero to six months are exclusively breastfed — that number is far too low,” said Schultink. “I hope that over the coming years we will see in China breastfeeding rates are also going to go up as is also happening in many other countries in the world,” he said.
INFANT FORMULA MARKETING AGGRESSIVE
“The infant formula industry (has) a very excellent marketing approach, they have convincing messages and many people believe that indeed it may be preferable to feed a child infant formula and to stop breast feeding — nothing is further from the truth,” Schultink said.
It is important to know that infant formula and powdered milk do not have the immune boosting properties of breast milk, which help breastfed babies to fight diseases and infections, he said.
Infant formula is also expensive and can even be dangerous when mixed using dirty water or dirty utensils.
“In a lot of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the access and availability to good quality clean drinking water is by no means guaranteed,” said Schultink.
“If (you) feed a child with contaminated water (or use) unclean utensils to prepare the infant formula and to feed the child then indeed the chances that the child gets diarrhea is enormous … and that contributes to a large number of child deaths,” he said.
In China, Schultink said, that concerns about quality control of infant formula would become less important if breastfeeding rates increase.
Unlike infant formula, breast milk is not advertised aggressively to new parents. If breastfeeding rates are going to increase, new mothers need support and information from health care providers, their families and communities, said Schultink.
“There are a number of things we can do to make mothers (and) communities more aware about the benefits,” he said.
RECOMMENDATIONS FROM UN AGENCIES
The World Health Organization and UNICEF recommend that infants should be breastfed exclusively for the first six months of life, exclusively means really nothing else, no water, no foods, no juices no porridges, for six months; and then that mothers continue to breastfeed until optimally 24 months of age, he said.
Schultink also acknowledged that breastfeeding isn’t necessarily easy, and that mothers and babies alike need guidance and support.
For example, giving mothers time off from work after giving birth so they have time and space to breastfeed.
Regulations that forbid or limit the marketing of infant formula have also been shown to work, he added. Enditem