Every year, Nigeria joins over 170 countries of the world to celebrate the breastfeeding week to promote exclusive breastfeeding from birth to when the child is six months. Exclusive breastfeeding means that the infant receives only breast milk, no other liquid is given, not even water with the exception of oral rehydration solution, or drops, syrups of vitamins, minerals and medicines.
It has become a fundamental truism that breastfeeding is not only good for babies, but for their health, as it meets an infant’s nutritional requirements and protects babies from dangerous illnesses. Such are the overall benefits of breastfeeding that the United Nations Children Emergency Fund, UNICEF, set aside this week as World Breastfeeding Day with the theme, “Breastfeeding and work: Let’s Make It Work’’, which however is only a vivid reminder that women should be supported to combine breastfeeding with work whether in the formal, informal, or home setting. She should be empowered to claim hers and her baby’s rights to exclusive breastfeed.
Beyond the health benefits therefore, breastfeeding increases bonding between the mother and the baby, culminating into a lifetime loving relationship between the mother and child. Such are the unarguable benefits of a mother’s breast milk to a child. On the other hand, lack of it or for a period less than the agreed minimum of six months creates all sorts of problems for the baby, one of which is malnutrition, leading to eventual deaths for some of these babies.
In fact, available UNICEF’s annual world breastfeeding week report a few years ago put the number of children dying annually as a result of malnutrition arising partly due to failure to breastfeed babies for at least the first 6months at 600,000 worldwide. This confirms the crucial importance of breastfeeding to infants. While, lack of it, or its inadequacy, which often times is obvious, has grave consequences for the child.
Sadly, exclusive breastfeeding, even as important as it is, has of late been declining in Nigeria, though, according to the 2013 Demographic and health survey, 98 per cent of Nigerian children are breastfed at some time, however, only 17 per cent of children are exclusively breastfed, and Nigeria has one of the poorest exclusive breastfeeding rates in Africa. This is as a result of many mothers breastfeeding their infants alongside giving them water. Other factors include inadequate training for healthcare workers and cultural practices and beliefs. Easy availability of infant formulas, most of which are imported, may also be playing a part in making mothers less inclined to feed their babies with breast milk, as the formulas seem more convenient, especially for the working class mothers.
However, infant formulas cannot be a substitute for the nutritious mother’s milk, not even as supplements, at least not the first six months. No mother, if she can help it, should trade her natural breast milk for infant formulas, no matter how easy, cheap or convenient such mode of feeding is to a baby. The health of a baby is so important and must be protected from all hazards, including infant formulas, some of which may carry health risk for babies.
So, for breast milk to be effective, pregnant and nursing mothers must have access to good diet so that the milk they produce will contain all the needed nutrients for their babies. Sadly, the increasing poverty in the land today is making it more and more difficult for families to have good diets. This is why all must intensify efforts at reducing poverty and tackling diseases and sundry issues. More jobs and other economic opportunities must be created in order to either get more people who are currently jobless engaged, in paid employment or be self-employed.
We must also invest more in the health and education sectors to enable the citizens acquire better skills and to have access to affordable health services, especially as it pertain to mother and child. This can be supported also by a policy on women empowerment to raise the economic status of the womenfolk who are currently at the bottom of the economic ladder and thus improve their overall health status.
The health of the mother and child will impact either positively or negatively on our development aspirations, depending on the kind of care we give to them. A healthy mother gives birth to healthy, strong children, who could grow up to help nurture a society or a country that is vibrant, competitive and meeting the aspirations of the citizens. On the other hand, a sickly mother and malnourished children will lead to not only unfulfilled lives and dreams for the affected mothers and children, but stunt the growth for the country as well.
Therefore, given their importance in our quest for national development, it behoves on us to put their overall welfare on our priority list, while a failure to do this means risking a future that is bleak, blighted and therefore unable to meet our aspirations as a nation and as a people.

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