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Scientists warn: Stop giving babies water, it ‘kills’ them

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A popular belief in Nigeria is that everyone needs to drink water to survive. Legendary musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti captured this feeling in a popular song, Water No Get Enemy. However, scientific evidence shows that water is an enemy, at least to children below the age of six months.

Children less than six months old do not need any drop of water; they need only breast milk, nothing more or less.

Global health bodies WHO and Unicef recommend that breastfeeding is initiated within one hour of birth and that it continues with no other foods or liquids for the first six months of life.

Facts indicate that babies who are exclusively breastfed are 14 times less likely to die than those who are not fed breast milk.

“Our greatest challenge to exclusive breastfeeding in Nigeria is water,” Ada Ezeogu, Unicef nutrition specialist told the ICIR in Ibadan, the Oyo State capital.

Ezeogu says stopping mothers from giving their babies water during the first six months can save the lives of thousands of children annually in Nigeria.

Exclusive breastfeeding is an infant feeding practice where children younger than six months are given nothing but breast milk.

The myth that a child below six months can get thirsty and needs water to quench the thirst has contributed significantly in placing Nigeria at the lowest level in the Global Breastfeeding Scorecard.

According to the National Demographic and Health Survey 2013, the prevalence of exclusive breastfeeding is only 17%.

Unicef says that this exclusive breastfeeding rate means that at least 5.4 million children each year miss out on its benefits and contributes to the country’s problem of chronic child malnutrition. Eleven million children under five are malnourished in Nigeria.

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An estimated 13% of child deaths can be averted if 90% of mothers exclusively breastfed their infants for the first six months of life.

Water is the greatest barrier to exclusive breastfeeding in Nigeria and Ezeogu is asking: “What can we do to stop mothers from giving water to their babies?”

She says if mothers can simply stop giving their children water, exclusive breastfeeding will soar.

BREAST MILK HAS ENOUGH WATER

Scientific evidence shows that about 88 per cent of the content of breast milk is water, which means that a baby on exclusive breastfeeding can never get thirsty within the first six months of birth. Other contents of breast milk are protein, fats, iron, and vitamins.

Scientists believe that giving babies additional water during the first six months denies them essential nutrient from the breast milk and introduces early onset of malnutrition.

Infections can easily be transmitted to the babies through water and this is why nutrition experts say that exclusive breastfeeding helps to prevent diarrhoea and pneumonia, the two major causes of death in infants.

“Breastfeeding gives babies the best possible start in life,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO ,says. “Breast milk works like a baby’s first vaccine, protecting infants from potentially deadly diseases and giving them all the nourishment they need to survive and thrive.”

What is often the case in Nigeria is that many people still believe that breastfeeding alone is not sufficient for babies and that babies need additional water or food.

Social pressure from relatives can be very strong on the mother to add extra things to a baby’s diet. Hence, babies are not only given water but also infant formula, herbs, semi-solid foods such as pap, gruel and in some instances solid adult food.

“Breast milk has everything a baby needs to quench thirst and satisfy hunger,” Ezeogu says.

She urges mother to understand that breast milk is the best food and drink that can be offered a baby so that the baby will grow to be strong and healthy.

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