UNICEF says that the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need for stronger measures to support exclusive breastfeeding, as Nigeria joins the world to celebrate this year’s World Breastfeeding Week themed “Supporting breastfeeding for a healthier planet.”The call came as UNICEF and the World Health Organization, WHO, in a joint statement on Monday, urged governments to find innovative solutions to protect and promote women’s access to breastfeeding counselling, a critical component of breastfeeding support.
The statement noted that Breastmilk saves children’s lives as it provides antibodies that give babies a healthy boost and protect them against many childhood illnesses. While researchers continue to test breastmilk from mothers with confirmed or suspected COVID-19, current evidence indicate that it is unlikely that COVID-19 would be transmitted through breastfeeding.
“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, like most emergencies, leaves families with children in an extremely vulnerable position. Given the present lack of evidence that transmission of the virus could occur through breastmilk, we recommend that mothers should be encouraged to initiate and continue to breastfeed their babies, while observing good hygiene practices,” said Peter Hawkins, UNICEF’s Representative in Nigeria.
UNICEF and WHO recommend that babies be fed only breastmilk for their first 6 months, after which they should continue breastfeeding – as well as eating other nutritious and safe foods – until 2 years of age or beyond. Currently, only 29 percent of Nigerian children between the ages of 0 to 6 months are exclusively breastfed.
Breastmilk substitutes such as infant formula, other milk products, and beverages not only contribute negatively to the health and development of the child, but also to environmental degradation and climate change. Breastmilk, on the other hand, is natural, and is the only food a baby needs in the first 6 months of life.
UNICEF called on relevant agencies to strictly enforce adherence to the National Regulation on the Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and relevant World Health Assembly, WHA, resolutions by putting to a stop to the unwholesome marketing of breastmilk substitutes. Civil society organizations should also not seek or accept donations of breastmilk substitutes in emergency situations.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, availability and increased access to health care workers, including midwives and nurses, to deliver skilled breastfeeding counselling to mothers and families is essential. Efforts must be made to increase investment in maternal, infant, and child nutrition interventions at the community level support and to implement policies that support maternity leave for 6 months in the public sector, and an enabling environment for breastfeeding in the private sector. Advocacy for paid paternity leave must also continue to ensure full participation of both parents in the early moments of the child.
“Through strengthened policy provisions and increased investment for breastfeeding, we can ensure that mothers in Nigeria are empowered to breastfeed their babies,” said Peter Hawkins. “Breastfeeding is still the safest during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.”