Breastfeeding: the key to healthy and happy children

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I am a very lucky person. My mother breastfed me when I was baby which was not very common in the 1950s in Sweden.

I've breastfed both of my daughters the youngest was reared on breast milk for 18 months. Now I have a 10-month old grandson, who was exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of his life and continues to enjoy it.

As a mother, I strongly believe that breastfeeding is the best thing a mother can do for her baby. Experts and organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF recommend that mothers breastfeed their children within the first hour of birth and breastfeed exclusively for 6 months meaning no food, no water or formula - and continue breastfeeding children until they are two years of age. By doing so, all mothers - both in poor and industrialized countries - can build a perfect foundation for her child to be healthy, happy and successful in her/his life in the future.

UNICEF believes that breastfeeding is not just a benefit; it is the right of every child. It is the single most important factor in child survival and development"”more important than any vaccine, modern technology or other health intervention.

Breastfeeding is good for physical and mental health

I think we all know the benefits of breastfeeding. The most obvious is nutrition. In addition to containing all the vitamins and nutrients a baby needs in the first six months of life, breast milk has many disease-fighting elements that protect a baby from illness. Children who are not breast-fed have a higher risk of getting diarrhea, which is the number one killer of children under five in Vietnam.

Kids who are not breast-fed are also at an increased risk of eczema, osteoporosis and other diseases.

Breastfeeding is good for mental health, too. Research has shown that breast-fed children are significantly less anxious and cope better with stress when they are older than formula-fed kids. Also, breast-fed children have, on average, greater intellectual capacity, better social development and better school performance than bottle-fed children.

It is not clear if these benefits are due to the close physical contact, breastfeeding itself, or the early bond that is created between mother and child during breastfeeding. But the fact is that breast-fed children do better in school and are generally better grounded throughout their lives.

However, the sad fact is that less than 20 percent of children in Vietnam benefit from exclusive breastfeeding. This is far below the goal set by the Government of Vietnam - which aimed to have 50 percent of infants exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of their lives by 2015. Vietnam has the lowest breastfeeding rate in Asia, where on average 42 percent of mothers exclusively breastfeed their children.

Artificial baby milk can be harmful

Vietnam's 2010 Nutrition Survey found that most parents in Vietnam give their babies formula milk in the hospital in the first days after birth. One reason is that young mothers are worried that they do not have enough breast milk, and they consequently do not start breastfeeding within the recommended first hour after birth.

I want to emphasize that the vast majority of mothers produce enough milk after their baby is born. During the first few days, newborns needs just 5-7 ml of breast milk each feeding, and almost every mother is able to produce this much.

The other problem is that medical staff and family members often encourage mothers to give up breastfeeding in favor of bottle feeding. Baby formula can make babies look healthy and chubby, but in reality these kids are malnourished.

Many Vietnamese parents do not know that powdered infant formulas are NOT sterile products. These products may contain bacteria such as Enterobacter sakaziithat, which can be deadly to newborns. Since 2000, there have been more than 70 recalls of infant formulas, mainly in developed countries with good monitoring systems and effective regulation over the marketing of baby foods. We can only guess what the situation is in countries with poor regulation. I want to remind us all that the 2008 Chinese milk scandal affected 300,000 children.

As a result of the scandal, several infants died of kidney stones and kidney damage. In a separate incident in China four years before, watered-down milk resulted in 13 infant deaths due to malnutrition.

The way forward

I know from my own experience that exclusive breastfeeding is not easy, especially for working mothers.

In Vietnam, many families depend on the income of both parents and mothers are often forced to go back to work soon after delivery.

UNICEF, along with our partners, are advocating for six months paid maternity leave for Vietnamese mothers. Countries like Norway and Sweden, for example, provide all working parents - both mothers and fathers - 12 months paid leave plus 12 months unpaid per child. These countries have high rates of exclusive breastfeeding. To give Vietnamese children the best start to life their mothers need at least 6 months paid maternity leave.

Evidence from other countries shows that if mothers are exposed to commercials and claims from food companies and medical professionals that packaged baby milk is as good as or even better than breast milk, breastfeeding rates will not improve. This is why UNICEF supported government efforts to strengthen the implementation and monitoring of Decree 21 which regulates the marketing of breast milk substitutes.

We also need to empower health and community workers to ensure that mothers have access to skilled feeding support and counseling - in line with the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative which aims to increase the numbers of breastfeeding mothers and babies in hospitals and community health centers.

To effectively promote breastfeeding, we need to raise the awareness of all mothers, including future mothers, about how important it is that they take time to breastfeed their child.

All of us need to do our part in helping every mother resist the forces that threaten this natural, healthy and essential start to life.

By Lotta Sylwander

Lotta Sylwander is the UNICEF Representative to Vietnam. The opinions expressed are her own.

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