By HENRY OWINO (Senior Correspondent)

World Breastfeeding Week takes place from August 1 to 7 annually. It is a week to celebrate and encourage breastfeeding mothers to continue  lactating.

The Department of Health and its partners, including the Kenya Nutritionists and Dieticians Institute (KNDI) appeal to the country to fully support and encourage breastfeeding mothers who are protecting their babies against many infections, including Covid-19.

Through breastfeeding, mothers protect their baby with a vital source of immune-boosting breast milk and help their babies thrive through close mother-and-child contacts.

It is important to practice hygienic measures to protect mothers and babies against Covid-19 and other harmful bacteria and viruses in our environments. Members of the family should help breastfeeding mothers whether Covid-19 positive or not to be take cautions during this pandemic.

According to World Health Organizations (WHO) the following breastfeeding guidelines could help in case one suspect or know to have Covid-19.

Wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use alcohol-based hand rub, especially before touching the baby.

Wear a medical mask during any contact with the baby, including while feeding.

Sneeze or cough into a tissue. Dispose of the tissue immediately and wash hands for at least 20 seconds again. And routinely clean and disinfect surfaces you have touched. Cleaning the breast with some warm water before feeding the baby is encouraged.

Benefits of Breastfeeding

It is important for mothers to exclusively breastfeed within the first hour of a baby’s life and continue for six months as often as much the baby may want. The first 6 months should be exclusive breastfeeding without any other infant formula.

Breast milk has all the nutrients a baby requires to grow and develop hence the need for exclusive breastfeeding. During the first six months, mother’s milk has ideal nutrition for the baby and no foreign foods should be introduced at this stage.

Breast milk is in a form more easily digested and readily available compared to infant formula. So, mothers are encouraged to breastfeed their babies as often as they may need it.

The other foreign foods could only be introduced after the sixth month but in bits so that the baby get used to them gradually. For example cows’ milk, water, and other formula milk as may be recommended by pediatrician.

Dr James Nyikal, a Pediatric cautions mothers from denying their babies breast milk and instead introduces foreign ones. He says this is harmful as it hinders development of some major organs of the baby such as brain which helps in reasoning.

“Breast milk is very significant for development of brain in the first 6 months of a baby’s life. It has long-term brain development in life. Children who are denied breast milk at early stage may just be big in the body size or tall but with poor reasoning capacity,” Dr Nyikal explains.

Dr Nyikal stated breast milk has got certain nutrients which cannot be found from other processed milk in the market. The nutrients are meant for developing those organs as the baby grows up. Therefore, the first 6 months are crucial in a baby’s life which also determines future lifetime.

Well breastfed infants are more likely to gain the right amount of weight as they grow rather than become overweight children. Breastfeeding also plays a role in the prevention of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). It’s been thought to lower the risk of diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers as well, but more research is needed.

“For first time mothers, normally find it challenging during the first few weeks as the baby may nurse roughly every two to three hours. Duration of breastfeeding is usually ten to fifteen minutes on each breast. But these challenges normally vanishes with time as the baby grow and learn how to breastfeed properly,” Dr Nyikal advises.

Older children feed less often. Mothers may pump milk so that it can be used later when breastfeeding is not possible. However, breastfeeding has a number of benefits to both mother and baby, which infant formula lacks.

The breast milk contains antibodies that help a baby fight off viruses and bacteria. The baby’s immune systems are developed by breastfeeding which lowers your baby’s risk of having asthma or allergies.

Again, babies who are breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months, without any formula, have fewer diseases such as ear infections, respiratory illnesses, and bouts of diarrhea. They also have fewer hospitalizations and trips to the doctor, diseases mostly associated with children under five years of age.

“After six months of exclusive breastfeeding, a baby could be introduced to other foods such as formula, water, juice, vegetables, grains, fruits, proteins among others. Breastfeeding should continue for a period of about two years,” Dr Nyikal said.

Dr Nyikal hinted that for the mother to have enough breast milk, she must also have peace of mind apart from good eating habits. The food should have lots of fluids to trigger free flow of breast milk.

“When the mother is psychologically disturbed or stressed up, breast milk would fluctuate. This would be reflected by the baby reactions and subsequently leading to breast rejection,” Dr Nyikal cautions.

“The environment that the mother operates in during and after pregnancy affects the baby. Circumstances that the mother experiences also communicates directly to the baby in the womb and even after birth,” he adds.

It is important for mothers to have all it takes to be in a peaceful environment where she is comfortable. Stressful life have negative impact to the welfare of unborn baby and the growing child.

Breastfeeding enables a baby to communicate to the mother through eye contact, physical closeness, skin-to-skin touching leading to mutual relationship. It is by breastfeeding that the baby reads and study her mother’s temperaments and such like personalities hence the bonding and sense of security.

It is for this reason that babies who are exclusively breastfed are able to identify their mothers by voice, appearance and even dress code while still very young. Breastfeeding has been linked to higher IQ scores in later childhood in some studies.

Those that are left mid-way and handed over to caregivers or house helps, tends to ignore their parents. Many are also in learning and may need a lot of time catch up with others in learning institutions.

Breastfeeding Benefits for the Mother

“Traditionally, breastfeeding also played a role as a family planning method. Continued breastfeeding pauses ovulation and menstruation so mothers could not get pregnant,” Dr Nyikal alluded.

Some women have even used this phenomenon as birth control for the first few months after delivery. However, note that this may not be a completely effective method of birth control. The suspension of menstrual cycles may actually be nature’s way of ensuring there is some time between pregnancies.

Accordingly, most organizations are currently allowing mothers to be accompanied by their babies at work. This is to enable breastfeeding to take place as a right time for the children.

“Companies or even worshipping places are required by law to avail secure breastfeeding rooms. Again to allow the mothers ample time to breastfeed their babies. So, there is no excuse of working or employment conditions,” Dr Nyikal emphasized.

Breastfeeding burns extra calories, so it can help mother lose pregnancy weight faster. It releases the hormone oxytocin, which helps the mother’s uterus return to its pre-pregnancy size and may reduce uterine bleeding after birth.

Breastfeeding also lowers mother’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer. It may lower the risk of osteoporosis, too.

Since a mother doesn’t have to buy and measure formula, sterilize nipples, or warm bottles, it saves time and money. It also gives parents regular time to relax quietly with the newborn as they bond. It actually releases stress.