Breast milk: The first supper

Breast milk is the best food for the baby; it provides all the nutrition essential for life and growth

Breast feedingOne million babies—one simple action—initiation of breastfeeding in the first hour of life. Believe it or not, this small act by mothers can save the lives of over one million children around the world!

Surveys conducted by health organisations across the globe reveal that over ten million children die from preventable causes every year before their fifth birthday and neonatal deaths are particularly prevalent. India contributes to more than a million of these deaths. The major reasons for such a high mortality rate are malnutrition and common infant illnesses like diarrhoea and respiratory disorders. This can be taken care of—to a large extent—if a child is breastfed right from the time of birth.

The World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action [WABA] intends to educate people that they should initiate nursing within the first hour of birth so as to reduce child mortality, especially in the first month. It recommends that every child be nursed exclusively till the age of six months and later, along with required complementary food, till the age of two or beyond.

Why is so much importance being given to the first hour of life?

The baby is highly alert during the first hour of life, discovering his new environment and has a strong desire to suckle. It is the best time to begin that special association between the mother and the child, which has benign repercussions on the child's growth by ingraining security and self confidence in him.

The triple effect

  1. Benefits for the baby

    Colostrum, or "liquid gold" as it is rightly termed, is the breast milk taken by the baby during its first few feeds. The colostrum, while being an excellent source of Vitamin A, helps regulate the functioning of the baby's intestine and clears it of meconium [baby's first, sticky, black stool] with its laxative effects. It also strengthens the baby's immunity by providing antibodies.

    And of course, we cannot overlook the benefits of touch that helps in mother-infant bonding and in the baby's neurodevelopment as well.

  2. Benefits for the mother

    When the baby touches the mother's breast, oxytocin is released in her body which stimulates the flow of milk and has a calming effect on her, a quintessential requirement for her after delivery. The baby's kicks, while it lies on her body, constrict her uterine muscles, thus controlling post-partum blood loss and preventing anaemia.

    Research has ascertained that nursing for long periods reduces the risk of anaemia, osteoporosis and ovarian and breast cancers in the mother's later life.

  3. Reduction of child mortality

    Commencement of breastfeeding in the first hour assures an adequate flow of milk for longer durations, thereby escalating the possibility of the mother being able to nurse exclusively for six months. This ensures that the nutritional needs of the child are met for the first one and a half to two years, and malnutrition and stunting are prevented.

    Infant illnesses like diarrhoea and respiratory diseases precipitate death in the first month of life and it is known that about 40 per cent of infant deaths occur during this phase of life.

    Breastfeeding in the first hour empowers the child's immune system, helping him fight these diseases and can curtail overall child mortality by 22 per cent. Colostrum intake reduces the risk of jaundice in the first few days of life. This plays an important role in reducing child mortality.

How to begin

Medical surveyors recommend that immediately after birth, the baby and the mother should be allowed skin-to-skin contact without any interventions like cleaning, dressing, medical assessments or administering Vitamin K.

It is said that soon after delivery, once the baby has cried and fallen into the process of normal breathing, it should be dried and placed between the mother's breasts. This contact between the mother and child provides love and warmth to him. It is also exposed to the "safe germs" infesting its mother, which start to abound its skin and intestine as well, thus fortifying his immunity. The fully functional olfactory nerves of the baby guide it towards the mother's nipple which it takes into its mouth and starts suckling. This movement of the baby from its mother's chest to her nipple for breastfeeding is called the "breast crawl". It is amazing to experience a newborn accomplish the breast crawl within 30 to 60 minutes, when we know that a baby does not actually start crawling before the age of six months!

The promoters of breastfeeding insist that the "breast crawl" is the simplest and the best way to commence breastfeeding in the first hour. Since, it can be done in any situation or setting, and provides a platform for longer contact between mother and child. It is nature's greatest gift to a woman. All families, doctors and nurses should come together in making this gift come alive and contribute in saving the lives of millions of babies around the world.

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