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Breastfeeding can save lives of 21,000 newborn in India every year

Pragya Vats

Updated: February 21, 2013, 12:40 PM IST
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India loses 1.65 million children in India die due to easily preventable illnesses such as diarrhoea, pneumonia - highest anywhere in the world. India carries the burden of 20 per cent of 7 million child deaths globally. Malnutrition is the single biggest killer contributing to one third of the child deaths. If the world is to make progress, India must cut its child mortality rates.

The good news is that in the last two decades there has been a huge global progress in reducing child deaths. Five million fewer children died in 2011 than in 1990. While overall child deaths are falling, a larger proportion of deaths occur within the first month of life.

Save the Childrens new report Superfood for Babies reveals that breastfeeding can save 830,000 newborn lives globally including 21000 lives in India. Simply put, 22 per cent of all newborn deaths can be prevented if infants were breastfed within the first hour.

Photograph: Parth Sanyal/Save the Children

Breastfeeding - first immunisation for the newborn

Experts vouch by the power the first hour, a child should be breastfed within first hour of birth and exclusively for six months to protect them against major childhood diseases. It reduces the risk that a baby is exposed to infections through the feeding of other liquids and foods.

One of the life-saving properties of breast milk is the protection it can give children from pneumonia and diarrhoea the two leading causes of child deaths. If you underestimated the power of breastfeeding, think again. A child who is not breastfed is 15 times more likely to die from pneumonia and 11 times more likely to die from diarrhoea. Around one in eight young lives lost each year could be prevented through breastfeeding alone.

Biggest bullet against malnutrition and newborn deaths

Breastfeeding saves lives and one of the biggest bullet in the battle against malnutrition and newborn deaths. Breast milk provides all the energy, nutrients and liquid that an infant needs in the first six months of its life. In fact studies have shown that a mothers breast milk adapts according to her infants individual needs at that time for his or her development.

The 1000 days window which is the critical period from the start of a womans pregnancy to her childs second birthday is the most important period for a childs physical and mental development. In this period the child needs all the nutrition that breast milk is the first source of nutrients to give a child a healthy start in life.

Failure to ensure early initiation to breastfeeding leads to a 10 per cent increase in the risk of a child being wasted. Their body weakened by the lack of adequate nutrients, is then unable to fight illnesses such as diarrhoea and pneumonia.

Barriers to boosting breastfeeding

Despite universal consensus that breastfeeding is the best way to give a child a healthy start in life, only 46 per cent of India's children are breastfed exclusively for six months, the global rate remain below 40 per cent.

In examining the barriers to breastfeeding in India, Save the Children found that family and religious customs dictate giving newborns other liquids before breastmilk. Studies in India also showed that over two-thirds of those who discard the colostrum cited religious beliefs, while others said it was thick, unclean and its removal helps children suckle more easily.

To prevent such misconceptions on breastfeeding that deny newborns the nutrients they need, we have to educate and encourage behavioural change in the family and health system.

Health workers are vital to supporting a mother to breastfeed especially in the first hour and days of an infants life. Research shows that women who had a skilled health attendant present at birth were twice as likely to initiate breastfeeding in the first hour.

Act now!

The action is needed now, to unlock the life-saving potential of breastfeeding. All countries should put breastfeeding at the centre of their efforts to improve child survival and nutrition, should develop specific breastfeeding strategies as well as include breastfeeding in nutrition programmes. Every country must introduce nationwide breastfeeding policies and legislations.

We can no longer stand and watch millions of children die in despair.

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First Published: February 21, 2013, 12:40 PM IST

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