Thought Leadership

The Best Start in Life: Getting Exclusive Breastfeeding Right

4 Mins read

By Kenneth Ibe and Hadiza Mohammed (Lead Writers)

Nutrition is a vital component of infant and young child development, and a major determinant of short and long-term health outcomes in children. The World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) state that the most critical period for good nutrition is from the start of a woman’s pregnancy until the child’s second birthday. Initiating breastfeeding — a great source of nutrition for babies — within one hour of birth and practising it exclusively for six months is an effective way to stimulate a baby’s development and ensure a child’s survival.

While exclusive breastfeeding (EBF) has far-reaching health and economic benefits, it is still not a widely adopted practice in Nigeria. The Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) 2018 reveals that the average duration of exclusive breastfeeding is about three months, and only three out of every 10 children under the age of six months is exclusively breastfed. This is an improvement from 17% in 2013 to 29% in 2018, though an abysmal figure when compared to the 2025 exclusive breastfeeding (EBF) prevalence goal of 50% set by the World Health Assembly.

Mothers’ breastfeeding experiences
Nigeria’s low EBF rates can be attributed to a combination of several factors, including traditional and socio-cultural misconceptions about breastfeeding, poor knowledge about its importance, non-conducive work environments for breastfeeding, increased marketing of breast milk substitutes to (and by) health workers, and lack of awareness creation on the part of health workers at the primary health care/community level.

We asked some mothers to share their experiences and challenges with exclusive breastfeeding. Their stories are diverse and insightful.

Dara Ajala-Damisa
“Exclusively breastfeeding for six months was very fulfilling. There are a lot of health and emotional benefits; I have not had to treat my child for any of the common childhood illnesses, she’s just been very healthy, and we share a beautiful bond. While exclusively breastfeeding, you need to understand that your child’s food is 100% dependent on you and what you eat, so make sure you are eating healthy.”

Nigeria Health Watch

Hon. Zainab Buba Galadima
“I breastfed for over a year; exclusively for the first three to six months. In the beginning, it’s quite painful but once you get the hang of it, it gets easier. In my religion, it is an act of worship and a means of bonding with your child. You can’t breastfeed while asleep or while laying down flat so as not to block the baby’s nostril and obstruct breathing. Breastfeeding boosts the immune system and reduces the chances of infection.

Nigeria Health Watch

Dr. Yetunde Oloruntoba
“It was extremely challenging the first time, even though I am a doctor. After some practice, I was able to place him correctly and get him to latch. My child is now six months old, and I’ve only given him breast milk. He was a 2.75 kg baby at birth, and within a few weeks, I could see him becoming very chubby.

Nigeria Health Watch

Dr. Kemisola Agbaoye
“When I had my daughter, my breast milk wasn’t flowing optimally. I tried to initiate breastfeeding within the first hour after birth and nothing really came out, so they started her on Nan in the hospital. My breastmilk started to come after her first week of life, and she was solely on breastmilk for six months before commencing complimentary breastfeeding. I was under a lot of pressure… I ate a lot and gained more weight than I did during my pregnancy.

With time, I realised that if I just ate and rested well, my breasts would fill up. I started to relax, stopped listening to external voices, and my breastmilk started to flow optimally. My daughter fed well, and exclusively for six months.

Nigeria Health Watch

Esther Akpa
“After I had my son, I had something called inverted nipples, which means that they were not as pronounced or pulled out as they should be. The implication was that my child couldn’t latch on, so I was unable to breastfeed for three days. In that time, I worried that he was starving to death. I spent a lot of time in the hospital because I had a caesarean section (CS). The nurses tried to use hot water in a syringe to kind of pull out my nipple, which made me bleed. Eventually, a friend who had had four children came and soaked a towel in warm water, then she gently pulled out my nipples.

After some time, my nipples returned to normal, and I was able to breastfeed. Although the start was painful, I eventually started enjoying breastfeeding.

Nigeria Health Watch

Supporting breastfeeding mothers
Taking care of a new-born infant can be both stressful and exciting. Partners and the larger family can provide mothers with needed assistance and support. This could entail giving the breastfeeding mother emotional support and encouraging her, which helps boost her confidence. Other ways a woman and her baby can be supported are:

  • Make mothers’ homes and workplaces comfortable so they can breastfeed optimally.
  • Midwives and nurses should undergo advanced trainings in best breastfeeding practices, as well as infant and young child nutrition to help educate mothers and guide them through the experience.
  • Governments at all levels should formulate and implement family friendly policies which will encourage mothers to exclusively breastfeed for 6 months. More states should emulate Lagos, Kaduna and Ekiti States who have instituted a six-month maternity leave for all female public servants.
Nigeria Health Watch

The best start in life for any child can be achieved through breastfeeding. It supports brain development, boosts the baby’s immunity, and remains the best source of nutrients. Additionally, breastfeeding benefits national economies. Increased breastfeeding rates can increase a nation’s prosperity by reducing healthcare expenditures and creating a workforce that is more productive. However, breastfeeding is not the mother’s job alone; it is everyone’s responsibility as it benefits the whole of society.

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