By Gilbert Tshitaudzi and Dr Mariame Sylla
Breast-feeding is the foundation for child survival.
Feeding an infant a diet of 100% breast milk as a complete food source in the first six months of life is important for growth and development.
As breast-feeding is readily available, affordable and nutritious it also functions as a protective shield later in life, against obesity and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes.
Today, Covid-19 is the latest challenge threatening the well-being of the youngest. Once again, breast-feeding can help to nourish and strengthen newborns, particularly critical as access to nutritious foods and child health services can be affected. But the benefits of breast-feeding also extend far beyond the child’s nutritional needs, and to the wellbeing of the mother, family and society at large.
In South Africa, Unicef, the UN Children’s Fund, has teamed up with national government and civil society organizations to raise awareness on child nutrition – in particular breast-feeding. Unicef recommends that breast-feeding be initiated within the first hour after birth, and that mothers continue breast-feeding exclusively for the first 6 months of life.
At 6 months, mothers can introduce nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods while continuing breast-feeding their children for up to 2 years or beyond.
Globally, Unicef actively promotes breast-feeding by participating in World Breast-feeding Week, a global campaign commemorated from August 1-7 annually to raise awareness and galvanise action on breast-feeding. The theme for this year, “Supporting breast-feeding for a healthier South Africa”, reminds us that creating an enabling environment for optimal infant and young child feeding is vital in our efforts to support healthy children. Unicef, as an active promoter of children’s rights, is fully supportive of initiatives that seek to protect, promote and support breast-feeding at different levels.
Lack of breast-feeding can negatively contribute to the survival, health and development of infants and children. The Unicef State of the World Children Report 2019 states that improving breast-feeding practices could save over 820 000 children’s lives a year globally.
With an exclusive breast-feeding rate at 32%, South Africa lags behind the World Health Organization global target of 50% which member states should reach by 2025.
This makes it more important to continue providing all the necessary support to breast-feeding women, and to accelerate actions to achieve the 2025 WHO global target for exclusive breast-feeding.
Globally, nearly half of diarrhoea episodes and one third of respiratory infections are due to lack of breast- feeding in children under the age of 5.
Unicef continues to promote, protect and support breast-feeding in the context of Covid-19, amid ongoing misinformation on the transmission of Covid-19 through breast-feeding. There is sufficient, reputable scientific evidence that all mothers including, mothers who have Covid-19, can still breast-feed their children safely.
Unicef works globally to ensure that breast-feeding is central to societal wide response on food and nutrition security initiatives for children.
We need to intensify the conversations with various role players, including the private sector to take action in advocating for breast-feeding as a public health intervention that saves lives and prevents childhood illnesses.
It is imperative to continue creating an enabling environment in public places and workplaces for mothers to be able to safely breast-feed their children.
Unicef acknowledges the challenges that breast-feeding women encounter daily as a result of cultural, societal and commercial pressures. Breast- feeding mothers who work outside the home need to be supported by employers and by their own families and communities.
Creches near their workplaces, lactation rooms and breast-feeding breaks can make a meaningful difference. The South African Code of Good Practice on the Protection of Employees during Pregnancy and after the Birth of a Child which forms part of the Basic
Conditions of Employment Act stipulates that breast-feeding women should be supported by giving them breast-feeding breaks. Nevertheless, more still needs to be done to realise this important intervention at workplaces.
Unicef calls upon all role players to do their part in protecting, promoting and supporting breast-feeding during the World Breast-feeding Week and beyond so that all children have the chance to fully develop and thrive.
The protection, promotion and support of breast-feeding before, during and after emergencies is a task for all of us. It is our collective responsibility to act.
* Tshitaudzi is a nutrition specialist with the UN International Children’s Fund (Unicef) in South Africa and Dr Syllia is health chief of Unicef South Africa.