By ONCHE ODEH -The cost of low cognitive development as well as the added cost of healthcare due to inadequate breastfeeding is estimated to cost the Nigerian economy US$21 billion, or 4.1 percent of its gross national income yearly.
In the latest Global Breastfeeding Scorecard released by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on Tuesday to commemorate the 2017 World, it has been found that, each year, over 5.4 million Children miss out on the benefits of Exclusive Breastfeeding in Nigeria due to the low level of breastfeeding coverage in the country.
The Scorecard which evaluated 194 nations also revealed that only 40 per cent of children younger than six months are breastfed exclusively and only 23 countries have exclusive breastfeeding rates above 60 per cent.
According to the Factsheet, in Nigeria the level of breastfeeding is only 17 per cent, a situation the UNICEF has said is contributing to the problem of chronic child malnutrition in the country, where it says not less than 11 million children under five are malnourished.
“The low rate of exclusive breastfeeding leads to more than 100,000 child deaths and translates into almost $12 billion in future economic losses for the country,” the UNICEF noted in the statement.
The scorecard also revealed that about 74 per cent of children who are not exclusively breastfed are from families in the lowest income group in Nigeria.
Why is the level of exclusive breastfeeding in Nigeria so low?
- Knowledge about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding is low in Nigeria.
- In parts of the country, only about 25% of mothers know that new-born babies should be given only breastmilk in the first six months of life. Many have the wrong notion that babies should be given breastmilk alone for only 2 to 4 months.
- Also, many mothers and family members believe, albeit incorrectly, that breastfeeding alone is not sufficient for babies and that babies need additional food or water. Social pressure from relatives can be very strong to add extra things to a baby’s diet. Babies are given infant formula, herbs, semi-solid foods such as pap (akamu), gruel and in some instances solid adult food. But breastmilk has everything a baby needs for the first six months of life. Adding any other foods and fluids reduces the intake of the essential nutrients contained in breastmilk.
- It has also been found that relatives often take a baby away from a new mother for one or two days to allow her to rest and recover from childbirth, causing the baby to missing out on breastfeeding during the critical first 24 hours of life.
- In Nigeria, some customs also require the permission or the presence of the father or a male representative before the baby is breastfed for the first time. A high premium is sometimes placed on giving water to babies and some cultures think it is very important to quench the thirst of babies with water, especially in hot weather. However, breastmilk has all the fluids a baby needs.
Actions are however being taken to bridge the breastfeeding gaps in Nigeria. For instance the National Health Strategic Plan of Action 2014-2019 on Infant and Young Child Feeding aims to increase the rate of exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months and to ensure that infants start to breastfeed within the first half hour of delivery.
Also, the new National Behavioural Change Communication Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding Practices is also being launched to improve knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours, promoting exclusive breastfeeding and healthy feeding for babies of over six months and young children.
The UNICEF is also offering technical and financial supports to the Government of Nigeria for capacity building on provision of appropriate infant and young child feeding practices, including the development and production of mass communication materials such as radio and TV jingles in English, Hausa, Arabic, Kanuri, Fulfude, Pidgin and Yoruba languages for use nationwide.
UNICEF has worked with the Government of Nigeria in the development, production and use of the strategic documents including National Maternal infant and Young child Nutrition and National Social and behavioural Change Communication strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding.
They, with partners are also training volunteer community mobilisers, health workers and other NGO partners to support the promotion of appropriate infant feeding, including early initiation of breastfeeding within one hour after birth, exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life and optimum complementary feeding since the age of 6 months up to 2 years at the household level.