Nigeria’s Slow Drive to Exclusive Breastfeeding

Despite the enormous benefits of exclusive breastfeeding, not many Nigerians consider it necessary for their babies. Martins Ifijeh writes on why it should be embraced by parents and the society 
Almost all Nigerians want to give their children the best things in life, even when such things like vacation, good education, nice shelter, safety, and good meals often come at a high cost. Yet somewhere along the line we have forgotten that one of the best things we can ever give our children – something that helps create a foundation for social, psychological and even job success later in life – is absolutely free. It is exclusive breastfeeding.
Unfortunately only about 17 per cent of Nigerian nursing mothers give their children exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, while only 11 per cent breastfeed exclusively beyond the sixth month, even though it is the cheapest, natural and most important meal any mother can give to her child for varying benefits.
For instance, a manager in one of the new generation banks in Baruwa, Ipaja Local Government Area of Lagos State, Mrs. Toye (surname withheld), has a child of five months old. She is by any standard among the middle class Nigerians who can afford almost anything for her child. She believes her son will grow up to be a medical doctor one day, and will travel round the world as part of the needed exposure any parent should give his or her child.
Toye and her husband will take their son to a good school in Lagos and will make sure he wears the best clothes and shoes. They will also probably give him other good things of life as a child.
But sadly, she has stopped exclusive breastfeeding for him since she resumed work two months ago. She did not include that as one of the good things her son must enjoy from her parenting. “Three months after maternity leave, I could not cope with giving him exclusive breast milk because of the demand of work. I now give him formula in addition to breast milk. I think he also likes the formula as well, hence making my decision even easier,” she said, during a chat with THISDAY.
While it is most likely that Toye has stocked her home with various types of formula because she could afford them, and may have bought several expensive things for her baby for his comfort in order to show how much of love she has for the growing child, the World Health Organisation (WHO) believes the best love Toye could give her five-month-old son was to offer him exclusive breastfeeding.
Reason? WHO says for a child under six months of age to get the necessary brain development needed to live through life and become successful in future, both in academics, level of income earned, socially, psychologically, and also importantly health-wise, he or she should be given exclusive breast milk for at least the first six months of life, while breastfeeding continues afterwards till the child reaches his or her first one thousand days of life, in addition to formula.
Experts say adding formula after six months of exclusive breastfeeding was because breast milk will no longer be enough to quench the child’s appetite as well as the needed nutrients for healthy growth. They however insisted breastfeeding should continue for the first one thousand days of life along with the supplements.
Unlike Toye, who could afford certain basic necessities for her son despite unfortunately not breastfeeding him for optimal brain development, a nursing mother, Kemi, who is poor and lives on less than a dollar per day in Lagos with her husband and two other children, is not taking advantage of the God-given free breast milk for her daughter.
She says immediately after childbirth she fell ill and was unable to breastfeed for a while, hence the need to introduce him to supplements. “Since then, even when I became well, he was already used to the formula, hence there was no need for me to re-introduce him to it.”
Kemi often struggle daily to buy supplements, meanwhile she has abundance of breast milk for her two month-old-son, but has refused to use it because of an age long local belief that most adults were not breast fed exclusively, hence it doesn’t matter.
A Nutritionist with Nutrition Evaluation Rehabilitation Centre, Benin, Mrs Faith Olaoluwa, says while Mrs Toye is no doubt showing love to her son the best way she feels she can, the child’s brain may not develop to reach its full potential. That may mean he will not become the best medical doctor the parents wish him to be.
Mrs. Olaoluwa believes all parents want their children to grow up to become a plus to the society, and that one of the most reliable ways to achieve that is to prepare a foundation for their brains to develop enough that they learn the many things they will need to know as adults.
According to a major series on breastfeeding published by The Lancet recently, children who are exclusively breastfeed do better in school, and thus stand a better chance of passing examinations that allow them to advance to higher education.
The report says breastfed children also are less likely to be overweight or obese, and less prone to develop diabetes later in life. Also, it says that nearly half of all diarrhea diseases and one third of all respiratory infections in children in low and middle- income countries could be prevented with increased rates of breastfeeding.
“Breastfeeding to near-universal levels could save more than 800 000 lives every year, with the majority being children under six months,” the report says, adding that, “children who are breastfed are less likely to suffer cancer, hypertension and several other health problems.
The findings from WHO and partners estimate that global economic losses from lower cognition associated with failure to breastfeed reached more than US$ 300 billion in 2012, equivalent to 0.49 per cent of the world’s gross national income. Boosting breastfeeding rates for infants below six months of age to 90 per cent in Brazil, China, and the United States of America, and to 45 per cent in the United Kingdom would cut treatment costs of common childhood illnesses
such as pneumonia, diarrhoea and asthma, and save healthcare systems at least US$ 2.45 billion in the United States, US$ 29.5 million in the United Kingdom, US$ 223.6 million in China, and US$ 6.0 million in Brazil.
A Program Director for Nutrition, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), United States, Dr. Daniel Raiten, believes the first step to the global dream of achieving equal opportunities for children to fulfill their potential is exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life.
Dr. Raiten, who spoke during a meeting with the three winners of the Early Childhood Development Reporting Contest in Washington DC recently, said there should be increased awareness on the need for parents and the society to pay more attention to early childhood development, especially in the first 1,000 days.
But despite the enormous benefits, why don’t Nigerians practice exclusive breastfeeding? WHO suggests many Nigerian mothers do not consider breastfeeding good enough to offer their babies exclusively.
It also cites heavy demands for work outside theme, ill health, fear of infecting newborns with HIV, and myths that breast-feeding makes breasts sag, among other factors.
As efforts to increase awareness of the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding, parents and the society in general may come to realize that the best thing they can give their babies is free. Such opportunities are rare, so it would be shame to miss this one.