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Nutrition International highlights the importance of breastfeeding during COVID-19

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A mother’s breastmilk is like a vaccination that nourishes the baby lifelong

On the occasion of World Breastfeeding Week (1st to 7th August) experts from Nutrition International, India highlights the importance of early initiation and exclusive breastfeeding during the COVID-19 pandemic. The theme this year is ‘Protecting Breastfeeding: Where Lies the Responsibility?’.

A mother’s breastmilk is like a vaccination that nourishes the baby lifelong. It builds immunity and cognition, reduces the risk of stunting, and protects the baby from diseases and death. It is naturally fortified with nutrients and antibodies making it even more important in COVID-19 times to protect both babies and mothers. Despite strong evidence supporting its immediate and long-term health benefits, timely initiation and continued breastfeeding is not practised widely. Phase one of the NFHS 5, 2019-20 notes that despite improvements in the institutional deliveries, only 50 percent of newborns are breastfed within the first hour of birth, and this was the situation before the pandemic.

Mini Varghese, Nutrition International’s Country Director for India said, “With the persistent fear of the third wave of COVID-19 and vaccination for infant and young children still not in sight, it makes re-focusing on breastfeeding even more important.”

Ensuring the implementation of breastfeeding within one hour of birth during all institutional deliveries will be an important step towards achieving the target. We need to identify barriers within the labour room and address them through capacity and infrastructure building to improve breastfeeding practices.

Speaking on this Anganwadi Worker, Nidhi Shrivastav from Datia District, Madhya Pradesh shares, “There are many myths around breastfeeding for COVID-19 positive or recovering mothers. COVID-19 positive mothers who give birth refuse to breastfeed as they fear they’ll pass the infection onto their babies. However, we work on counselling these new mothers and their families on the lifesaving benefits of breastfeeding. We also encourage them to take precautions such as washing their hands, wearing masks and sanitizing surfaces for safe breastfeeding practices.”

All the concerned stakeholders including professional associations need to come forward to support the government to ensure that the IMS Act is implemented in its true spirit. The ‘zero separation’ policy to promote early initiation of breastfeeding which mandates the newborn to be put between the breast immediately after delivery to maintain skin-to-skin care for the first few hours after birth, has been a critical first step towards the ‘right start’ of life. However, a long journey is still underway.

Varghese further recommends investing in two aspects of critical importance. Firstly, counselling of pregnant women and their families on early initiation and exclusive breastfeeding during every interaction with them. Secondly, capacity building of labour room and postnatal care ward staff and retaining them in these facilities. While the disruptions in services and counselling have highlighted the deficiencies in our health and nutrition services, they also present an opportunity to adopt new approaches.

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