Written by Bukola Adebayo - Nigeria
For expectant mothers who still don't know, exclusive breast feeding is the act of giving a
baby only breast milk in the first six months of a child's life without adding any supplement, food or liquid, including water.
Oh yes! It may sound impossible to most that any one can survive a day without drinking water, but doctors maintain that the breast milk is the only food and fluid that a child needs in the first six months of life.
They say that for the baby to get all the benefits inherent in it, the mother must practise exclusive breastfeeding.
Consultant Paediatrician, Dr. Yeni Olanrewaju, says the breast milk is the most nutritious food a mother can give her newborn. It is also the best food for a growing infant.
Olanrewaju says the first milk from a woman's breast shortly after delivery has been proved to contain thousands of nutrients that will help the baby till s/he can produce enough antibodies to fight infection.
"We call it immediate breast-feeding, which is putting the baby to the mother's breast within an hour after birth . The antibodies in this breast milk within this hour could significantly reduce the chances of losing the baby in the first six weeks.
" It is a cost-effective strategy that we advise all mothers to adopt in order to reduce neonatal deaths," Olanrewaju enthuses.
Even the United Nations Children Fund states that early and exclusive breastfeeding supports healthy brain development, improves cognitive performance and is associated with better educational achievement at age five.
The UNICEF, however, laments that less than 40 per cent of infants under six months receive the benefits.
According to the global body, approximately 1.3 million deaths can be prevented each year if at least 90 per cent of mothers practise exclusive breast feeding.
Consultant Paediatrician, Dr. Bunmi Adeniyi, says that six months of exclusive breastfeeding is key to the survival of a child, as it helps in boosting the baby's immunity level to fight diseases and infections.
According to Adeniyi, the breast milk, especially the first thick yellow milk called colostrum, contains anti-bacterial and anti-viral agents and high levels of vitamin A that protect infants against diseases.
He notes that promoting exclusive breast feeding reduces the incidence of killer diseases such as pneumonia, diarrhoea, jaundice and other respiratory infections.
"Breast milk is a natural source of food for the baby and it is important for the baby's growth. It also contains antibodies that protect infants from bacteria, viruses and other childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea and respiratory infections - diseases that kill children in Nigeria.
"It is a strategy that the nation must encourage mothers to adopt to reduce the alarming infant mortality rates in Nigeria," the paediatrician notes.
Adeniyi adds that the breast milk is the safest food for a newborn, as it has the right amount of energy, protein, fat, vitamins and other nutrients which the baby needs to grow optimally in the first six months.
He states, "The body system of a baby in the first six months is most susceptible to infection. Every other food you give them is foreign, apart from breast milk.
"The danger of introducing other foods is that they may be contaminated, and you cannot verify the source. The only safe and reliable source of food for infants is the breast milk. It cannot be duplicated or counterfeited."
Many mothers worry about not giving their babies water while breastfeeding. However, experts warn that this practice may compromise the gains of breast feeding.
They note that mothers need not worry, as 88 per cent of breast milk is made up of water.
Adeniyi explains, "Breast milk is already 88 per cent water; you need not add more. It has all the nutrients that the baby needs in the first six months of life. Studies show that healthy, exclusively breastfed infants under six months old do not need additional fluids, even in countries with extremely high temperatures and low humidity.
"Offering water before six months reduces their breast milk intake, interferes with full absorption of breast milk nutrients, and increases the risk of illness from contaminated water and feeding bottles."
Olanrewaju adds that nutrients in the breast milk are essential for the baby's brain development, especially in the first year.
Also, experts at the American Institute for Cancer Research cite convincing evidence that this practice offers cancer protection to both mother and child.
According to AICR, new mothers can directly lower their own risk of both pre- and post-menopausal breast cancer by breastfeeding.
They add that children who are breastfed are less likely to become overweight or obese, which in turn lowers their risk of several common cancers that have now been convincingly linked to excess body fat.
The scientists note that mothers who breastfeed recover from childbirth more quickly and easily. According to them, the hormone, oxytocin, released during breastfeeding, acts to return the uterus to its regular size more quickly and can reduce post-partum bleeding.
The benefits of breastfeeding are endless. If you love your child, you must give him/her the best.
And to all expectant mothers out there: try exclusive breast feeding!