Seven out of every 10 babies in West and Central Africa receive liquids and foods in addition to breastmilk during their first six months of life, contributing to child malnutrition, illnesses and even death. The Stronger With Breastmilk Only multi-year campaign launched today by UNICEF and the Alive & Thrive initiative calls on Governments, partners, businesses, communities and families to ensure that mothers get the support they need to give their babies the best start in life.
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Despite positive economic growth in West and Central Africa, the number of stunted children under five years has increased from 23 to 29 million between 2000 and 2018. In addition, the region is home to an estimated 4.9 million children suffering from severe acute malnutrition.
For babies under six months to stay healthy, scientific evidence recommends giving them breastmilk only and on demand (day and night). No water, other liquids or foods should be given from the moment of birth until they reach six months of life, even in hot and dry climates, as breastmilk contains all the water and nutrients a baby needs to grow well. According to studies in low- and middle-income countries, babies who receive liquids and foods in addition to breastmilk before six months of age are at greater risk of diarrhoea and respiratory infections. They are almost three times more at risk of dying than those who are exclusively breastfed.
Breastfeeding also has significant benefits for mothers by hastening recovery after childbirth, delaying the return of the menstrual cycle thus helping with birth spacing, and reducing the risk of cancer.
The costs of not breastfeeding are enormous: in addition to thousands of preventable deaths of children, it costs West and Central Africa hundreds of millions of dollars annually to treat illnesses, to buy infant formula, and in lost productivity due to cognitive losses associated with not breastfeeding.
“Breastmilk is a pure gift. It is a baby’s first vaccine and best source of nutrients. Promoting, protecting and supporting mothers to give breastmilk only, no water, for the first six months of life requires encouragement and support from family members, health care providers, employers, policymakers and all of society. Together, we can make a difference”, said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa.
A recent poll conducted by UNICEF in 10 countries in West and Central Africa revealed that 55 per cent of youth incorrectly believe that babies need water in the first six months of life. Additionally, 45 per cent of respondents thought that babies should be given something in addition to breastmilk in order to grow strong and healthy. The Stronger With Breastmilk Only campaign focuses on stopping the practice of giving water to babies younger than six months as an entry point for shifting norms and behaviours towards improved breastfeeding practices.
“Alive & Thrive’s successful experiences in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Vietnam demonstrate that it is possible to significantly increase exclusive breastfeeding rates in a relatively short period of time. Alive & Thrive brings evidence-based frameworks, methods and tools to support countries in West and Central Africa to scale up evidence-informed programmes that work, including initiatives in Burkina Faso and Nigeria, which are already showing promise,” said Dr. Tina Sanghvi, Senior Technical Advisor of Africa Country Programs at Alive & Thrive.
Having a comprehensive national strategy that protects, promotes and supports breastfeeding is the most effective way to influence the environmental, social, economic and behavioural factors that influence a mother’s decision to feed a child breastmilk only in the first six months of life.
The Stronger With Breastmilk Only campaign aims to catalyse much-needed policy, social, institutional, community and family dialogue and change towards improving breastfeeding rates in 24 countries. It calls on governments, partners and businesses across West and Central Africa to take action and position exclusive breastfeeding as a public health priority to improve the health and prosperity of children and nations.