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Nigeria: the importance of breastfeeding

Nigeria, alongside over 170 countries, observed World Breastfeeding Week from 1–7 August to campaign for and encourage exclusive breastfeeding, promote infant feeding best practices and warn against the risk of formula feeding.

Across Nigeria, governments at all levels engaged in activities to encourage women to breastfeed their babies.

However, it’s important to look critically at the state of exclusive breastfeeding in Nigeria, especially in light of the huge challenges facing the nation in the area of child malnutrition.

Shocking statistics

According to Save the Children’s report A Life Free From Hunger: Tackling Child Malnutrition, 11 million Nigerian children are chronically malnourished and this could increase to 13.4 million by 2020 if nothing is done to address the situation.

41% of Nigerian children under five are stunted, ie, too short for their age, 14% of children are wasted, ie, too thin for their age, while nearly one child in every four is underweight.

Some of the consequences of malnutrition at this early age are irreversible. The implications are grave for the victims, the society and the country as a whole.

The implications

Firstly, a malnourished child would never be able to reach his/her full potential in terms of growth and brain development.

Secondly, malnutrition is the underlying cause of 53% of the one million deaths of children under five in Nigeria.

Lastly, studies have shown that malnutrition is undermining economic growth – it’s estimated that 2–3% of the national income of a country can be lost to malnutrition.

Dire as the situation is, a globally acclaimed study in the Lancet has shown that early and exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months  can help prevent malnutrition and significantly improve the chances of child survival.

It’s sad that despite the incontrovertible evidence, only 13% of Nigerian children under six months are exclusively breastfed. This speaks volumes about child survival in Nigeria.

Reasons why so many children are deprived of breastfeeding:

  • lack of public awareness about benefits
  • lack of a conducive working environments for nursing mothers
  • marketing of breastmilk substitutes
  • attitudes of some health workers and family members.

Benefits of breastfeeding

Colostrum (the milk produced at the end of pregnancy) is recommended by the World Health Organization as the perfect food for newborns. It contains antibodies that protect infants from bacteria, viruses and other childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea and respiratory infections – the two primary causes of child mortality worldwide.

Breastfeeding promotes bonding between infant and mother.

Breastmilk is affordable and readily available at the right temperature, which helps to ensure that infants get adequate sustenance.

Studies have also shown that adults who were breastfed as babies often have lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol, as well as lower rates of obesity and type-2 diabetes.

Nest steps

As we celebrate World Breastfeeding Week 2012, the Nigerian government should, as a matter of urgency, consider increasing the current maternity leave of four months to six months to encourage mothers to exclusively breastfeed their babies.

We must remember that it’s everyone’s duty – governments, corporate organisations, employers, the media, religious leaders, health workers, policy makers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters and parents – to support nursing mothers.

Without this, Nigeria – and by extension Africa – may never achieve Millennium Development Goal 4 to reduce child mortality, while the country’s vision of becoming one of the twenty biggest economies by 2020 would only remain wishful thinking.


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