In The News: Breastfeeding: Rest of Your Life Best Assured!

How many of us know we observe World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) during August 1st to 7th, every year? World Breastfeeding Week is coordinated by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), a global network of individuals and organizations concerned with the protection, promotion and support of breastfeeding worldwide. Between 1-7 August this year, WABA and breastfeeding advocates in over 175 countries worldwide will be celebrating the WBW theme 'Sustaining Breastfeeding Together.' – says Muthuswamy Balasubramanyam, Dean of Research Studies & Senior Scientist at the Madras Diabetes Research Foundation, Chennai, India.

The Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) was launched by WHO and UNICEF in 1991, following the Innocenti Declaration of 1990. Since its launching BFHI has grown, with more than 152 countries around the world implementing the initiative. We do have Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI), launched in the year 1991, which is a broad-based organisation with paediatricians, obstetricians, nurses, mother support group, media persons and housewives as members. Despite all these initiatives and awareness, what we see in reality is disheartening efforts and trends of breastfeeding.

Over centuries, human milk is evolutionary shaped to nourish the newborn and is regarded as the nutritional gold standard for term infants. Breast-feeding has declined worldwide in recent years, as a result of urbanization, marketing of infant milk formulae and maternal employment outside the home. Studies in India have also shown a decline in breast-feeding trends. As per the international guidelines and the Indian Academy of Pediatrics Policy on Infant feeding, ‘an ideal infant feeding comprises exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months followed by sequential addition of semi-solid and solid foods to complement (not replace) breast milk till the child is gradually able to eat normal family food (around one year). According to National Family Health Survey -3 (NFHS-3) data obtained years ago in India, 20 million babies are not able to receive exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and about 13 million do not get good timely and appropriate complementary feeding after six months along with continued breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding is beneficial to both Mother and the Offspring!

Nutrition and protective effects of breast-feeding have mostly been attributed to the health of the child. However, recent findings suggest that mothers can benefit from breast-feeding as well, says Muthuswamy Balasubramanyam. During gestation, enormous changes occur in women’s metabolism to ensure sufficient supply to the fetus. Breast-feeding is certain to ‘reset’ these metabolic changes in a favorable way both for the mother and the baby. For infants, not being breastfed is associated with an increased incidence of infectious morbidity, as well as elevated risks of childhood obesity, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, leukemia, and sudden infant death syndrome. For mothers, failure to breastfeed is associated with an increased incidence of premenopausal breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, myocardial infarction, retained gestational weight gain, and the metabolic syndrome. More research is needed to address these health issues and their association with lack of breastfeeding.

Breastmilk has ‘bioactive components’ and serve as a ‘polypill’.

In addition to the nutritional components, breastmilk contains a wealth of ‘bioactive components’ that may have beneficial non-nutritional functions and multiple health benefits. This means breastmilk is not only nutritional but also medicinal! & serve as a polypill! Breastfeeding in the perinatal period has a profound effect on long-term health and this occurs through epigenetic mechanisms as a legacy effect. Human milk oligosaccharides have significant prebiotic effects, selectively serving as a source of energy and nutrients for desired bacteria (microbiome) to colonize the infant intestinal tract. “This means health benefits of breast feeding are not only nutritional but also epigenetic and even metagenomic” says Muthuswamy Balasubramanyam.

Quoting a UNICEF UK report written by a multi-university academic team, Breastfeeding is nothing but “Preventing Disease and Saving Resources” says Muthuswamy Balasubramanyam. The report makes a strong financial case for investing in better support services for women, to enable them to start breastfeeding and continue for as long as they want to.

Many studies indicate severe gaps between current practices of breastfeeding and WHO recommendations and constitute basis for designing interventions to bridge these gaps. Reasons are many, which include aggressive promotion of baby foods by commercial interests, lack of support to women at family and work places, and inadequate skilled health care support. All that shows how much work needs to be done if meaningful rise of feeding practices is to be achieved. Health care practitioners have a unique and influential role in promoting and supporting breastfeeding. Governments, health care facilities and health care providers should make every attempt to adhere to the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and relevant World Health Assembly Resolutions.

Breastfeeding is a fundamental public health issue because it promotes health, prevents disease and helps contribute to reducing health inequalities. Act Now! Become an Ambassador for Breastfeeding! Protect, Promote and Support breastfeeding… it is a worthwhile goal… and it saves lives and prevent diseases.

Balasubramanyam photo Dr.M.Balasubramanyam, PhD., MNASc., FAPASc is Dean of Research Studies & Senior Scientist at the Madras Diabetes Research Foundation (MDRF) in Chennai, India. Dr. Balasubramanyam's specialization is in Disease Biology; Molecular pathogenesis of diabetes and its vascular complications including diabetic retinopathy; Vascular Biology and signaling studies on VSMC; Clinical significance and subclinical relevance of cellular and molecular alterations in metabolic diseases; Mechanisms of accelerated senescence (ageing) and telomere biology; Insulin signaling & Proteomics; Epigenetics; RNAi and miRNA, gut microbiome aspects of diabetes, Unraveling mechanisms of hyperglycemic memory, Calcium & Redox signaling, Proinflammation, Oxidative stress, ER stress, AGE pathway and biomarker(s) identification; Role of Endocrine Disruptors in diabetes; Bioprospecting herbal molecules; Non-invasive point-of-care (POC) clinical measures and medical devices.

References (click to show/hide)

  1. World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), website:
  2. M.Balasubramanyam (2008). One more reason for breastfeeding – prevention of diabetes. Current Science 95(9):1115-7.

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