“Breastfeeding is an unequalled way of providing ideal food for the healthy growth and development of infants; it is also an integral part of the reproductive process with important implications for the health of mothers” – WHO, 2015.
The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, as this practice is known to stimulate brain development, prevent child obesity and non-communicable diseases later in life.
Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age by the WHO, however the median duration of breast feeding in India is 2 months. Given the socio-economic and cultural diversity of India, breastfeeding practices vary widely across the country. Regional differences and community affiliations also determine breastfeeding practices.
If every child was breastfed within an hour of birth, given only breast milk for their first six months of life, and continued breastfeeding up to the age of two years, about 800,000 child lives would be saved every year (Lancet 2013). In India, only 24.5% of children are breastfed within the first one hour of birth. The state of Bihar possesses the lowest rate at 3.7%.
Influence of background characteristics on breastfeeding
A higher level of mother’s education is associated with higher levels of breast feeding. Educated mothers, owing to positive exposure, are likely to be in a better position to understand the importance of the medical and non-medical effects of breastfeeding.
Place of delivery
34% of women who delivered at a health facility breastfed their child within one day as opposed to 17.8% of women who delivered at home. This signifies the importance of institutional support systems in instilling best practices towards improved nutritional and health outcomes.
Across the globe, there are conflicting views on whether mothers from wealthier households tend to breast feed their children more than their poorer counterparts; and the evidence is mixed. Wealthier mothers may have better health conditions owing to superior economic conditions; and hence are in a better physical and emotional health state to breastfeed. On the other hand some argue that mothers from wealthier households have the affordability to substitute mother’s milk with nutritional supplements, and hence tend to breastfeed less. Data for India seem to corroborate the former view point.
(Written by Radhika Asrani in collaboration with Dr Ramaprasad Rajaram)