Exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months provides all the energy and nutrients a child needs

Exclusively breastfeeding infants for the first six months of their lives provides all the energy and nutrients a child needs while reducing the risks of infant diarrheal and respiratory infections, according to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).

The World Breastfeeding Week, during the first week of August, seeks to create an awareness of the importance of breastfeeding, a practice that has been losing ground over the last few decades for a variety of reasons.

The period between birth and two years of age is considered a "critical window of time" for the growth and full development of a child. Over a longer term, nutritional deficiencies are linked to problems and obstacles to intellectual performance, work capacity, reproductive health and the overall health of adults.

That is why feeding with breast milk during an infant's the first six months - and even during the first year - creates a solid nutritional foundation for well-being during adolescence and adulthood.

Even though breastfeeding is considered a natural practice, it is also a learned behavior. According to the PAHO report on Health in the Americas, "although most women in Latin America breastfeed and do so for a relatively long period of time, breastfeeding practices are far from optimal."

The growing number of women in the labor market, together with the lack of labor practices that guarantee maternal leaves and a limited work schedule to give mothers a chance to breastfeed, have made the strengthening of this natural practice much more difficult.

In addition, there are a number of common erroneous beliefs and myths that further negatively affect the duration of exclusive breastfeeding. They include:

  • That a woman does not have enough milk to exclusively breastfeed during the recommended first six months of an infant's life. Breast milk is produced on demand; that is, the more an infant is put to the breast to suckle, the more milk a women will produce. The production of breast milk is influenced by the stimulus from the suckling action as well as by a series of hormonal activities that take place when an infant is put to the breast.
  • That other liquids and foods need to be given in addition to breast milk. Breast milk provides all the nutritional requirements that infants aged 0 to 6 months need for proper growth.
  • That infants living in hot and humid climates need to receive water. Even in hot and humid climates, breast milk should be the only source of food and liquids for the first six months of life. This not only provides infants with the necessary liquids, even in the hottest and most humid climates, but also protects them from infectious diseases caused by contaminated water.

The report on Quantifying The Benefits of Breastfeeding: A Summary of the Evidence, Publishes, with PAHO's contribution, a list of the benefits of breastfeeding based on scientific studies. One of those publications -- based on 260 breastfeeding mothers at maternity clinics in San Pedro Sula, Honduras - made clear that those infants who received only breast milk during the first six months of their lives were able to crawl earlier and began to walk at 12 months of age. This was in contrast to those infants who only received breast milk during the first four months of their lives.

Another study done in the United States showed a reverse link between the duration of breastfeeding and the risk of overweight: The infants who were breastfed for more than seven months had a 20% lower probability of being overweight than those infants breastfed for less than three months.

According to the PAHO program IMCI - Integrated Management of Childhood Illnesses - the nations of the Americas are committed to joint actions to increase the practice of breastfeeding. IMCI seeks to promote breastfeeding throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Most of the nations of Latin Americas and the Caribbean are members of the Codex Alimentarius commission, which determines the labeling and content of baby foods. It also determines the appropriate age to begin feeding infants supplementary foods. In 1989, 30 countries signed the Innocenti Declaration which focuses on the need to protect, promote and support breastfeeding.

This declaration is the basis of the World Health Organization (WHO)/UNICEF Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI), which was adopted in 1992. Through the "Baby Friendly" certification, the BFHI initiative has influenced the routines and norms of hospitals throughout the world. And in 2001, the WHO/UNICEF Global Strategy for Breastfeeding Babies and Small Children worked out a plan of action for the international community about the issue of breastfeeding.

PAHO was established in 1902 and is the world's oldest public health organization. PAHO works with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and the quality of life of people of the Americas. It serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization (WHO). PAHO Member States today include all 35 countries in the Americas. France, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are Participating States. Portugal and Spain are Observer States, and Puerto Rico is an Associate Member.

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