Cotonou/Geneva/New York – Getting mothers to return to work too soon is a barrier to the early initiation of breastfeeding, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said as the World Breastfeeding Week 2019 (1 August-7 August) is being commemorated.
“Babies need to be exclusively breastfed in the first six months and continued breastfeeding until two-year-old or longer constitute practices that can boost children’s immune systems, shield them from disease, and provide protection from noncommunicable diseases later in life,” WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said jointly in a statement.
Breastfeeding also protects maternal health, and therefore women who breastfeed reduce their risk of breast and ovarian cancers, they added.
Therefore, taking their mothers away just after three months was affecting new-born babies and disturbing their full cycle of breastfeeding, as first-time mother Esther Kponou found out in Benin’s commercial capital Cotonou, where she lives and works.
“I feel bad every time I had to leave my baby behind to rush to work in the morning,” Kponou, who recently returned to work after her maternity leave ended in mid-July, said.
“I wish we could stay at home up to six months to take care of our babies and breastfeed them properly,” she added.
The theme for this year’s World Breastfeeding Week is ‘Empower parents, enable breastfeeding’. It is in this spirit that the WHO and UNICEF are calling on governments and all employers to adopt family-friendly policies – including paid maternity leave for a minimum of 18 weeks, and preferably, for a period of six months – as well as paid paternity leave.
Family-friendly policies – such as paid parental leave – enable breastfeeding and help parents nurture and bond with their children in early life, when it matters most, Tedros and Fore said.
The evidence is clear that during early childhood, the optimal nutrition provided by breastfeeding, along with nurturing care and stimulation, can strengthen children’s brain development with impacts that endure over a lifetime.
“In line with the policy actions advocated by the WHO-UNICEF-led Global Breastfeeding Collective, we also call for greater investments in comprehensive breastfeeding programmes, improved breastfeeding counselling and support for women in health facilities and the community, and an end to the promotion of breast-milk substitutes to enable parents to make informed decisions on the best way to feed their infants,” they said.
An estimated 78 million babies – or three in five – are not breastfed within the first hour of life, putting them at higher risk of death and disease and making them less likely to continue breastfeeding. Most of these babies are born in low- and middle-income countries, according to the United Nations.