Hyderabad: Breast milk is the best and most complete source of nutrition for all babies till six months of age. It has the perfect combination of nutrients such as whey proteins, carbohydrates, and fats in an easily digestible form.

Breast milk's composition can vary according to the baby's requirement particularly in the first few days of life. It contains antibodies that help babies fight infections and build up immunity. Exclusively breastfed babies have less chances of getting ear infections, pneumonias, diarrhoea and in general have much better immunity than babies on formula feeds.

Breastfed babies also have a lower risk of allergies like asthma, eczema, and atopic dermatitis. They tend to have fewer hospital visits and less problems of colic and indigestion. Some studies have linked breastfeeding to higher IQ scores in later childhood. Breastfed infants are more likely to gain the optimal amount of weight as they grow rather than become overweight or obese. Breastfeeding also plays an important role in the prevention of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). It's been thought to lower the risk of diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers as well, but more research is needed.

Breastfeeding has various benefits for the mother, too. It helps lose pregnancy weight faster, helps in reducing post-partum blood losses, and lowers the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and osteoporosis.

Despite the fact that breastfeeding is natural and instinctive, many mothers face problems in breastfeeding as their traditional source of learning was lost with extended families being replaced by nuclear families. There is a general perception among many mothers that their milk is insufficient for the baby. Crying of the baby for any reason is taken as a sign of hunger and mothers tend to start formula feeds for falsely perceived milk inadequacy. Breastfeeding definitely requires patience and efforts in the first few days which is the time most mothers give up. As per government figures, only 55% of mothers tend to exclusively breastfeed their infants for the first six months of life.

As formula-fed babies tend to gain weight more rapidly, breastfeeding mothers start comparing their baby's weight to them. Some mothers then feel pressurized to start their baby also on formula feeds presuming their baby is not getting enough nutrition.

The solutions to promote and protect breastfeeding require a team approach - an early start is always good. Pregnant ladies should be repeatedly counselled and made aware regarding breastfeeding. They should be examined for flat or inverted nipples during pregnancy as they may cause difficulty in breastfeeding. If these issues are addressed before the baby's delivery, mothers will be more confident and positive about breastfeeding. The nurses and doctors should educate the mother and address their concerns periodically.

Formula feeds or any sort of additional feeds like water, honey, ghutti should be strongly discouraged. Pacifiers and artificial teats must not be introduced especially in the first few days after birth. Mothers should receive a healthy balanced diet and unnecessary dietary restrictions based on local customs should be stopped. The family should provide constant support and encouragement to the breastfeeding mother. It should be ensured that all mothers get six months of paid maternity leave. With all these measures, one can ensure higher rates of exclusive breastfeeding till six months.

The author, Dr. Aparna C is clinical director, neonatology, and senior consultant, neonatology and pediatrics, at KIMS Cuddles, Kondapur.

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