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Over 70% of Nigerian children denied exclusive breastfeeding benefits – UN

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Over 70 per cent of children in Nigeria are denied benefits of exclusive breastfeeding, the United Nations (UN) has said.

In a joint statement by the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN said only 44 per cent of infants were exclusively breastfed in the first six months of life globally – falling short of the World Health Assembly target of 50 per cent by 2025.

The statement marking this year’s World Breastfeeding Week urged countries to invest in programmes and initiatives enabling mothers to breastfeed their children exclusively.

The ICIR reports that Nigeria’s exclusive breastfeeding rate jumped from two per cent in 1990 to 17 per cent in 2013, according to the National Nutrition and Health Surveys (NDHS).


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The rate further went up to 25 per cent in 2017 and is currently at 29 per cent, according to the UN.

Exclusive breastfeeding means a baby is fed only breast milk for the first six months, and given no other food or drinks, including water.

In their statement, UNICEF and WHO, through their Directors-General, Catherine Russell and Tedros Ghebreyesus, respectively, said that as global crises continued to threaten the health and nutrition of millions of babies and children, the importance of breastfeeding as the best possible start in life was more critical than ever. 

According to the agencies, breastfeeding acts as a baby’s first vaccine, protecting them from common childhood illnesses. 

They listed emotional distress, physical exhaustion, lack of space and privacy, and poor sanitation experienced by mothers in emergency settings as reasons many babies missed out on the benefits of breastfeeding to help them survive.

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Citing humanitarian emergencies in conflict areas such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Ukraine, the Horn of Africa, and the Sahel, the agencies said, “breastfeeding guarantees a safe, nutritious and accessible food source for babies and young children. It offers a powerful line of defence against disease and all forms of child malnutrition, including wasting.”

The agencies said of the situation in Nigeria: “In Nigeria, the exclusive breastfeeding rate is 29 per cent, meaning that over 70 per cent of infants in Nigeria are denied the aforementioned benefits of breast milk in their formative years. 

“Only nine of organizations have a workplace breastfeeding policy, indicating that mothers lack the enabling environment to breastfeed their babies optimally. 

“The results are high stunting rates of 37 per cent of children under-five, of which 21 per cent are severe, and wasting among children under five years of age (seven per cent). They continue to present severe consequences for the child.” 

The organizations argued that fewer than half of all global newborn babies were breastfed in the first hour of life, leaving them more vulnerable to disease and death. 

They also said only 44 per cent of infants were exclusively breastfed in the first six months of life, short of the World Health Assembly target of 50 per cent by 2025.

“That is why UNICEF and WHO are calling on governments, donors, civil society, and the private sector to step up efforts to:

  • Prioritize investing in breastfeeding support policies and programmes, especially in fragile and food insecure contexts. 
  • Equip health and nutrition workers in facilities and communities with the skills they need to provide quality counselling and practical support to mothers to successfully breastfeed. 
  • Protect caregivers and health care workers from the unethical marketing influence of the formula industry by fully adopting and implementing the International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes, including in humanitarian settings. 
  • Implement family-friendly policies that provide mothers with the time, space, and support they need to breastfeed.”
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