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UNICEF calls for promotion of breastfeeding during World Breastfeeding Week
International charity for children UNICEF is calling for improved awareness of the health benefits of breastfeeding during World Breastfeeding Week, which begins today, August 1 – August 7 2016.
UNICEF says that breastfeeding has been directly linked to reducing infant mortality, and yet - despite World Health Organization guidelines which recommend exclusive breastfeeding until six months - only 36% of babies in developing countries in this age group are being exclusively breast fed.
UNICEF’s Executive Director Anthony Lake says: “With so much at stake, we need to do more to reach women with a simple, powerful message: breastfeeding can save your baby’s life.” He adds: “No other preventative intervention is more cost effective in reducing the number of children who die before reaching their fifth birthdays.”
UNICEF says this message applies whether the baby is born in Uganda or England, China or Canada and says we should adopt creative communication approaches - including the use of social media - reaching out to a broader audience in order to raise awareness of the issue beyond the confines of the maternity ward.
Earlier this year a study funded by the Gates Foundation and published in The Lancet revealed that breastfeeding saves lives and improves health outcomes in every country in the world, but it also revealed that women are being repeatedly failed by their respective societies due to a lack of support and advice.
According to the NHS, 73% of new mothers in the UK begin breastfeeding but this figure drops to just 17% by the time the baby reaches three months. This means that the UK has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world and while specific reason for this are not fully clear, barriers include social stigma, inadequate support for breastfeeding mothers who are experiencing difficulties and mothers that are returning to work.
A highly emotive subject, UNICEF suggests that breastfeeding is still viewed as difficult or even unnecessary by some people, as formula milk is viewed by some as an adequate substitute. Some families feel excluded by positive breastfeeding messages, perhaps because in the past they chose not to breastfeed their own children or alternatively experienced the trauma and disappointment of wanting to breastfeed but – for whatever reason – were unable to do so.
Breaking down barriers to breastfeeding
Breastfeeding support network La Leche League GB also said recently that it supports the view that breastfeeding is a public health issue, however, it also says its aim is not to increase pressure on women to breastfeed, but rather to remove existing barriers that prevent women that want to breastfeed from doing so.
Barriers to successful breastfeeding are said to include a lack of expert support in the crucial early days, sometimes due to overstretched and underfunded health services, social stigma from friends and relatives which may lead to a perceived inability to breastfeed in public places or in front of others, and difficulties faced when returning to work after maternity leave. While a mother’s right to breastfeed in public is protected by UK law, many women still report being asked to leave public shops and restaurants while discreetly feeding or to cover their baby’s head by staff amid face negative comments from disapproving members of the public.
UNICEF has also launched its Call to Action for breastfeeding initiative, which urges the UK government to implement four steps in order to create a supportive environment for mothers who wish to breastfeed. It calls for the removal of practical, emotional, cultural barriers to breastfeeding and a fundamental shift in policy making and public discourse. UNICEF says it is time to stop blaming individual women and begin acknowledging our collective responsibility as a nation for poor breastfeeding rates.
Supported by a range of charities, Royal colleges, universities and health organisations, the UNICEF UK Call to Action initiative calls for:
- The development of a National Infant Feeding Strategy Board, one for each of the UK’s four nations, with members from all relevant government departments. Each Board, says UNICEF, should be responsible for developing and implementing a comprehensive National Infant Feeding Strategy
- Action to promote, protect and support breastfeeding in all policy areas where breastfeeding has an impact
- The implementation of evidence-based initiatives that support breastfeeding, including the UNICEF UK Baby Friendly Initiative, across all maternity, health visiting, neonatal and children’s centre services
- Protection from what UNICEF describes as “harmful commercial interests” by adopting the International Code of Marketing Breastmilk Substitutes.
Find out more about the UNICEF campaign.
For help, support and advice on breastfeeding, visit La Leche League.
What are the benefits of breastfeeding?
Benefits for the baby
According to the NHS, breast milk is the ideal food for babies. It is always available, tailored to the individual baby and its needs as it grows, is sterile and at the optimal temperature so babies can be fed immediately and without the hassle of time-consuming and expensive formula preparation. Breastfeeding is also said to strengthen the secure emotional bond between a baby and its mother.
As a species-specific food, breast milk also contains a wide range of essential antibodies crucial for the developing immune system and bacteria that is gut beneficial, all passed on from mother to child via breast milk. For this reason, breastfed babies suffer fewer gastrointestinal illnesses and infections than formula-fed babies. In addition, breast milk contains long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids which are crucial to brain development and numerous studies have found a link between breastfeeding and improved neurodevelopment in infants and young children.
Evidence also indicates that breastfed babies are less likely to become obese and develop type 2 diabetes in later life and have a reduced risk of developing various allergies, including asthma. Breast milk has even been found to decrease the risk of some childhood cancers.
Breastfed infants are also said to be less likely to be hospitalised in the first year of life and studies have also shown that breastfeeding up to the age of six months may reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) by as much as 50%.
Benefits for the mother
For the mother, breastfeeding has been found to decrease the risk of breast and ovarian cancers, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and obesity, as breastfeeding enables the body to use up the extra fat stored up by the body for milk production during pregnancy.
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