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Breastfeeding could save 210,000 child deaths in India

Feb 20, 2013

Around 22 per cent of newborn deaths could be prevented if breastfeeding started within the first hour of birth, a recently released report said.

Dr Arun Gupta, Member, Prime Minister's Council on India's Nutrition Challenges, is disturbed over the sway baby-food manufacturers have over parental decisions on nourishing their infants.

Worse, he feels, the government is not up to speed.

“Existing laws in India dealing with the health of a mother and her child need to be fine-tuned to make authorities more responsible and responsive to this issue,” Gupta says.

Gupta rued that that the food industry in the country does not allow the government to promote breastfeeding as is required by the nation of this magnitude.

Practicing exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a child’s life and complementing that with soft foods after could prevent 210,000 Indian children from dying each year, said NGO Save the Children, advocates for child rights and protection.

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

The report also revealed that 22 per cent of all newborn deaths can be prevented if infants were breastfed within the first hour. Despite government claiming that 70 per cent deliveries are institutional, 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.

India scores low on policy and programme on breastfeeding as shown in the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative report. That is why, Arun Gupta says, the country and its states need to develop and resource plans of action to achieve better breastfeeding practices for women and children.

“Some states are doing well with reduced number of child deaths, but the overall picture is still very grim,” he said.

The report highlights that those infants who are not breastfed are 15 times more likely to die from pneumonia and 11 times more likely to die of diarrhoea than those who are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life.

Dr Rajiv Tandon, Senior Advisor for Maternal Newborn Child Health and Nutrition (MNCHN), Save the Children, lamented that nobody has ever incentivised breastfeeding in India. Somebody has to be responsible for the new born deaths,” he said.

According to Thomas Chandy, CEO, Save the Children, India, infants are in their most fragile state during the first hour of their birth, the time during which breast milk serves as a child’s first vaccine.

“Over half of all child deaths in India happen within the first month of life, and thousands of those deaths are preventable if they were given what they need most – their mother’s milk,” he says.

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

According to the report, family and religious customs dictating other liquids before breastmilk to remove the first stools of newborns is one of the biggest barrier to breastfeeding. 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.

“To prevent such misconceptions on breastfeeding that deny newborns the nutrients they need, we have to educate and encourage behavioural change in the family and health system,” Chandy said.

“The report confirms the child survival benefits of breastfeeding, justifying coordinated action to scale up rates of breastfeeding practice,” Gupta said.

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