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Breastfeeding central to eliminating child malnutrition: Agency chiefs

Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), issued the reminder in a joint statement for World Breastfeeding Week, which runs through 7 August. 

A central role 

They recalled that Governments, donors, civil society and the private sector, united to launch the Nutrition for Growth Year of Action, describing it as an historic opportunity to transform the way the world can fulfil the global commitment to eliminate child malnutrition. 

“Breastfeeding is central to realising this commitment,” they said. 

“Initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour of birth, followed by exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continued breastfeeding for up to two years or beyond, offers a powerful line of defence against all forms of child malnutrition, including wasting and obesity.  

“Breastfeeding also acts as babies’ first vaccine, protecting them against many common childhood illnesses,” they added. 

Pandemic threatens progress 

Although prevalence of exclusive breastfeeding increased by 50 per cent globally in the past four decades, alongside other related progress, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the fragility of those gains, the UN officials said. 

In many countries, the crisis has caused significant disruptions in breastfeeding support services, while increasing the risk of food insecurity and malnutrition.  

“Several countries have reported that producers of baby foods have compounded these risks by invoking unfounded fears that breastfeeding can transmit COVID-19 and marketing their products as a safer alternative to breastfeeding,” they said. 

Their statement highlighted how World Breastfeeding Week is an opportunity to revisit the commitments made at the start of the year by prioritizing breastfeeding-friendly environments for mothers and babies.  

Action includes ensuring full implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes – established to protect mothers from aggressive marketing practices by the baby food industry.  

Health workers also should have the resources and information necessary to support mothers to breastfeed. 

Smart investments and commitments 

Meanwhile, employers must allow women the time and space to breastfeed their babies, including paid parental leave with longer maternity leave, safe places for breastfeeding in the workplace, access to affordable and quality childcare, and universal child benefits and adequate wages. 

Looking ahead to the UN Food Systems Summit in New York in September, and the Nutrition for Growth Summit in Tokyo two months later, the UN officials called for smart investments and commitments to combat the global malnutrition crisis. 

Protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding through stronger policies, programmes and actions, is part of this effort. 

“Now is not the time to lower our ambitions. Now is the time to aim high,” they stressed. 

“We are committed to making the Nutrition for Growth Year of Action a success by ensuring that every child’s right to nutritious, safe and affordable food and adequate nutrition is realized from the beginning of life, starting with breastfeeding.”

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