05 August, 2022

Breastfeeding is nature’s best health plan

Breastfeeding leads to many health benefits for children as well as lactating mothers. In this article, Sujeet Ranjan, Associate Director, Nutrition, Tata Trusts stresses the need for greater awareness and action around breastfeeding in India.

If there is a health plan that promotes health best practices, prevents diseases, and helps in reducing health inequalities, it is breastfeeding. It not only improves survival rates and provides lifelong health and development benefits to new-borns and infants, it is also critical to improving nutrition outcomes for children.

While there are numerous issues surrounding breastfeeding, including traditional beliefs, myths, misconceptions, inadequate knowledge, access to counselling services during pregnancy and post-natal period, recognition as a human right, etc., the fact remains that only breastmilk offers infants and young children complete nutrition, early protection against illness, and safe, healthy food — all at once.


Nearly all babies are breastfed to some extent, but far less than half are breastfed in the most beneficial way. Breastfeeding allows for (a) improvements in child survival, nutrition, and health; (b) better health for mothers; and (c) temporary contraception. Improving the early initiation of breastfeeding, within an hour of birth, and protecting exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, therefore, assumes utmost importance.

Nutrient intake in the first two years of life is governed by appropriate infant and young child feeding (IYCF) practices, which comprise breastfeeding and complementary feeding (CF). The results of the National Family Health Survey – 5 (NFHS-5) indicate that the percentage of mothers following the practice of early initiation of breastfeeding has declined in 12 states and Union Territories. This is a matter of serious concern. Meanwhile, a rise in the rates of early initiation of breastfeeding is also observed in a few states. The practice of exclusive breastfeeding shows only a marginal improvement. The data indicates the need for educating and supporting young mothers and children through this process.

The first week of August is celebrated world over as World Breastfeeding Week. The theme this year is ‘Step Up for Breastfeeding: Educate and Support’. While the week aims to spread awareness about the importance of breastfeeding and its need in the lives of babies and mothers, how do we step up for breastfeeding and galvanise actions on themes surrounding it?

Timely initiation of breastfeeding within one hour of birth: Every newborn starts breastfeeding within one hour of birth to take advantage of the newborn’s intense suckling reflex and alert state and to stimulate breast milk production. Good breastfeeding skills -- including proper positioning and attachment -- are established to increase the newborn’s suckling efficiency, mother’s breast milk production, and infant’s breast milk intake.

Exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of life:
Every infant is exclusively breastfed in the first six months of life. The infant is fed only breast milk and is not given any fluids, milk, or foods, not even water. Exclusive breastfeeding, with frequent on-demand feedings, ensures maximum protection against malnutrition, disease, and death, while contributing to child spacing and lower fertility rates.

Every infant starts receiving complementary foods by the beginning of the seventh month of life, while breastfeeding continues until 24 months and beyond. By the beginning of the seventh month of life, breast milk alone cannot meet an infant’s energy and nutrient requirements. At this time, complementary feeding should begin. Introducing complementary foods before is both unnecessary and dangerous.

There is a need to stimulate social support to promote breastfeeding:

  • Community initiatives in the village and adequate counselling for continued breastfeeding
  • Strengthening social networks like change agents and mother support groups.
  • Local context-specific behaviour change communication
  • Emotional empathy, concern, caring, love, and trust from family and friends

Direct health benefits to the baby:

  • The strong immune system for babies as breast milk is the best source of nutrients
  • The baby receives antibodies from the mother through breast milk. These antibodies aid in the immune system development of infants and shield them against disease.
  • Breastfeeding can help shield infants from certain acute and chronic illnesses and diseases. Babies that are breastfed are less likely to develop asthma, obesity, and type 1 diabetes.
  • Prevention of colds and respiratory diseases such as pneumonia, respiratory syncytial virus, and whooping cough for babies
  • Better eyesight for babies. Babies are less likely to become obese later in childhood.

The key to best breastfeeding practices is in continued day-to-day support for the breastfeeding mother within her home and community.

This article was first published on August 5, 2022 in Hindustan Times

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