Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months can prevent the death of 210,000 children per year in India, says a new report

Practising exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a child’s life and complementing that with soft foods in the following period could prevent 210,000 Indian children from dying each year, a new report by Save the Children has said.

Titled ‘Superfood for Babies: How overcoming the barriers to breastfeeding will save children’s lives’, the report says that one-in-eight of the young lives lost each year could be prevented through breastfeeding alone. Globally, that means 830,000 more children could live to celebrate their fifth birthday. 

Research also revealed that 22 per cent of all newborn deaths can be prevented if infants were breastfed within the first hour. Across the country, just 40 per cent of babies are given colostrum, the first milk produced by a mother that is full of vital antibodies that strengthen a baby’s immune system.

In examining the barriers to breastfeeding in India, Save the Children found that family and religious customs dictate giving newborns other liquids before breast milk to remove their first stools. 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.

The report calls for coordinated action to scale up rates of breastfeeding practice, said Dr. Arun Gupta, Member-Prime Minister's Council on India’s Nutrition Challenges, while emphasising that “India scores low on policy and programme on breastfeeding as shown in the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative report, and India and its States need to develop and resource plans of action to achieve better breastfeeding practices for women and children.”

In light of the benefits and barriers to breastfeeding, Save the Children has recommended that the government should fund projects that empower young women to make their own decisions, ensure that every woman has a skilled health worker present when she delivers her child so that the health system becomes stronger to protect, promote and support breastfeeding and implement nationwide breastfeeding policies and legislation that includes a minimum of 18 weeks of maternity leave.

Importantly, it seeks to tighten national regulation in the countries where they operate.

Breastfeeding is one of the best ways to tackle malnutrition; a simple, natural way to boost a baby’s immune system. The report says that if babies receive colostrum within an hour of birth, they are three times more likely to survive. And if the mother continues feeding for the next six months, then a child growing up in the developing world is up to 15 times less lily to die from killer diseases like pneumonia and diarrhoea. 

The Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, which informs and supports mothers to breastfeed their infants, has proven to be successful in improving the rates of early initiation of breastfeeding. In Kerala, where 80 per cent of hospitals have been declared baby friendly, rates of initiating breastfeeding within the first day of an infant’s life were 92 per cent compared to the national average of 37.1 per cent.

“Breastfeeding is the most effective of all ways to prevent diseases and malnutrition which can cause child deaths,” said Thomas Chandy, CEO, Save the Children India. “It contains all the energy and nutrients that a child needs to survive and thrive for the first six months of life.”

Meanwhile, the report also highlights questionable marketing practices adopted by some breast milk substitute companies active in emerging markets. Asia is a lucrative new market for the industry which is already worth £16 billion and set to grow as whole by 31 per cent by 2015. In East Asia and the Pacific, the number of breastfeeding mothers has fallen from 45 per cent in 2006 to 29 per cent in 2012. 

New research by Save the Children in Asia also found mothers who cited examples of marketing activity which violate the internationally agreed code for marketing of breast milk substitutes. 

In Pakistan, researchers worked with respected pollsters Gallup to survey new mothers and health workers finding that 20 per cent of health workers surveyed said they received branded gifts from representatives of breast milk substitute companies, including prescription pads, calendars, pens and note pads.

In a snapshot of the situation in China the charity also spoke to mothers finding that 40 per cent of mothers surveyed reported being given formula samples by some breast milk substitute’s company representatives or health workers. Of this, 60 per cent were said to be provided by baby food company representatives, and over 30 per cent were said to be given by health worker.