Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger
 

The Importance of the Best First Food

Five_month_old_boy_in_mexico

A five-month-old boy rests on his mother's back in a small town near Comitan, Mexico. (Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World)

By Nina Keehan

Let's discuss one of the most basic forms of nutrition. It's the first, and most important, food in a child’s life: breast milk.

Whenever the subject of maternal and child nutrition comes up, more and more people are talking the critical 1,000-day window of opportunity, which is the period from start of a woman's pregnancy until her child's second birthday. According to a growing body of scientific evidence,  undernutrition during this time is disastrous.

"Healthy development, particularly brain development, depends on getting the right foods at this critical time," according to information in Bread for the World Institute's 2013 Hunger Report. "Hunger during this time is catastrophic, because the resulting physical and cognitive damage is lifelong and irreversible."

When the medical journal The Lancet ran a series on maternal and child undernutrition in 2008, it identified exclusive breastfeeding as one of the most successful interventions for improving child health and nutrition.

That means starting early is vital—and early means during the first 60 minutes of life. A recent Save the Children report, "Superfood for Babies," found that 95 babies would be saved every hour if they were immediately breastfed after birth. Equally impressive is the fact that infants who are exclusively breastfed during the first six months of their lives are up to 15 times less likely to die from diarrhea and respiratory infections, leading killers of young children.

Yet fewer than 40 percent of infants in developing countries are exclusively breastfed. And those low numbers are not isolated to the developing world: An article published by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that the United States has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the industrialized world, and one of the highest rates of infant mortality.

"Data from 2003 indicate that 71 percent of U.S. mothers initiate some breastfeeding, and only 36 percent report feeding any human milk to their infants at six months...." the article stated. "Those numbers stand in marked contrast to Sweden, for example, where the breastfeeding initiation rate exceeds 98 percent and the rate at six months is 72 percent.”

Infants who are exclusively breastfed have fewer dental cavities, stronger immune systems, and, research shows, fewer psychological, behavioral, and learning problems as they grow up. Mothers  in the United States also get the advantage of a savings of $1500 a year on formula and feeding supplies.

There are many mothers who cannot, or choose not, to breastfeed for a variety of valid reasons—personal, situational, and otherwise. Still, it’s important to remove barriers to breastfeeding and ensure that all mothers who have a choice in whether or not to breastfeed have all of the information on its benefits.

Nina Keehan, a media relations intern at Bread for the World, is a senior magazine journalism and public health dual major at Syracuse University.

 

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