Time to Scale up Exclusive Breastfeeding is Now



A nursing mother, breastfeeding her baby


The global community recently marked this year’s World Breastfeeding Week, an annual event commemorated every 1 to 7 August, to promote deliberations and policies on the practice of breastfeeding around the world. With this year’s theme being “Let’s make breastfeeding and work, work”, the week-long advocacy witnessed global discussions on the essentiality of breastfeeding and the necessity of promoting maternity rights in the workplace.


As one of the cardinal ingredients required for the proper growth, development and wellbeing of a child, the mother’s breastmilk is naturally fortified with minerals and nutrients, which offer many advantages to the child from infancy into the early years of childhood. It is against this background that the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have continually recommended that mothers, all over the world, initiate breastfeeding within the first hour of birth and exclusively breastfeed their infants for the first six months of life.


As experience and research findings have shown, however, actualising the goal of exclusive breastfeeding is a challenge for many working mothers, given the strenuous demands of most modern workplaces. Indeed, going by recent reports from UNICEF, only 9 per cent of workplaces have a breastfeeding centre, with only 1.5 per cent of such existing in the public sector. Even more disturbing is the alarm raised by the apex health body that more than half a billion working women are not given essential maternity protections in national laws, with only 20 per cent of countries requiring employers to provide employees with paid breaks and facilities for breastfeeding or expressing milk. Consequently, fewer than half of infants under six months of age are exclusively breastfed.

NAPharm/PSN Symposium Press Conference


This is a worrisome reality that portends grave dangers for the overall health of children globally and, by extension, the wellbeing of nations that encourage such anomaly. As a nutritionist from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Dr Uju Onuorah, has noted, “Antibodies found in breast milk help to shield infants from a variety of ailments and disorders, including asthma, obesity, type 1 diabetes and sudden infant death syndrome. Infants who are breastfed are less likely to get respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases. Also, it helps with cognitive development for children and studies have shown that exclusively breastfed babies tend to have higher intelligent quotient than non-exclusively breastfed babies.”


To reverse the appalling trend of laxity towards exclusive breastfeeding and stem the resultant consequences, it is imperative for nations to scale up their implementation of exclusive breastfeeding policies. Such critical policies that must be enforced with all seriousness include demanding all employers of labour to comply with paid maternity leave and ensuring that they provide enabling environments for breastfeeding mothers in workplaces.

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In Nigeria, for example, while the Federal Civil Service Commission has provided 16 weeks paid maternity leave for women in its employ and two hours off a day to breastfeed their babies till 6 months after their resumption, this is still short of the six months recommended duration of exclusive breastfeeding for nursing mothers. Findings have actually shown that only five states of the federation – Lagos, Kwara, Ondo, Borno and Niger – have complied with the six months paid maternity leave policy. It must be emphasised that, as long as the remaining 31 states and the Federal Capital Territory decline in domesticating this crucial policy, Nigerian indices in the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding will remain poor.


With Nigeria’s exclusive breastfeeding rate standing at 29 per cent in a country of over 220 million people, it means that a whopping 71 percent of infants in the country are not enjoying the benefits of breastmilk in their formative years. This is definitely a time-bomb that will prove inimical to the nation’s health and general progress, if concrete steps are not taken to remedy the situation. The Federal Ministry of Health, relevant NGOs and all other stakeholders must work together towards improving these discouraging figures, which cast a dark cloud over the health and longevity of infants in the country.

Communique of 18th annual national conference of association of hospital and administrative pharmacists of Nigeria


Moreover, with more Nigerian women gaining employment and working to support their families, it has become imperative for the Federal Government to review the Labour Act to correct its limitations, with regard to breastfeeding rights. One of such is the stipulation that mothers employed outside of the public sector are entitled to only 12 weeks maternity leave, with half pay if they have worked for their employer for at least six months. Such stringent rules subject mothers to undue pressure during the breastfeeding period, which ultimately proves unhealthy for them and their babies.


Fortunately, it has not been all doom and gloom in the facilitation of exclusive breastfeeding by employers of labour in the country. Recently, Alive & Thrive – a global nutrition initiative – recognised four private organisations in Nigeria for instituting family-friendly workplace breastfeeding policies. The companies are MTN Nigeria Communications PLC, Access Bank PLC, Guinness Nigeria PLC, and UAC Nigeria. This is highly commendable and we call on other public and private organisations in the country to join these few recognised ones in instituting polices and creating a workplace environment that make breastfeeding and work, work!


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