Stronger with Breastmilk Only initiative aims to save lives, reduce child malnutrition in West and Central Africa

The Stronger With Breastmilk Only site is here to share resources and information on an initiative toWe

protect, promote and support exclusive breastfeeding specifically targeting mothers, fathers, grandmothers, health care workers, officials, businesses, and others who want to ensure babies receive the best source of nutrients available: Breastmilk!

Despite positive economic growth in West and Central Africa, recent estimates indicate that the number of stunted children under five years has increased from 23 to 29 million between 2000 and 2019. In addition, the region is home to an estimated 7.3 million children suffering from acute malnutrition. These alarming figures underline the scale of malnutrition that children in the region already faced, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. With COVID-19 and increasing levels of food insecurity along with other risk factors, the regional malnutrition caseload is projected to increase even more. 

In West and Central Africa, UNICEF estimates in 2019 that seven out of every 10 babies received liquids and foods in addition to breastmilk during their first six months of life, contributing to child malnutrition, illnesses and even death. 

The Stronger With Breastmilk Only multi-year initiative launched by UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the Alive & Thrive initiative calls on Governments, partners, businesses, communities and families to ensure that mothers get the support they need to give their babies the best start in life.

For babies under six months to stay healthy, scientific evidence recommends giving them breastmilk only and on demand (day and night). No water, other liquids or foods should be given from the moment of birth until they reach six months of life, even in hot and dry climates. Breastmilk contains all the water and nutrients a baby needs during the first six months of life. After six months of age, breastfeeding should continue until 2 years and beyond while introducing gradually solid foods. 

In the context of Covid-19 pandemic, based on scientific evidence, these recommendations stay the same. Preventive measures, including handwashing, hygiene and wearing a mask, should be applied as much as possible!

According to studies in low- and middle-income countries, babies who receive liquids and foods in addition to breastmilk before six months of age are at greater risk of diarrhoea and respiratory infections. They are almost three times more at risk of dying than those who are exclusively breastfed.

Breastfeeding also has significant benefits for mothers by hastening recovery after childbirth, delaying the return of the menstrual cycle thus helping with birth spacing, and reducing the risk of cancer.

The costs of not breastfeeding are enormous: in addition to thousands of preventable deaths of children, it costs West and Central Africa hundreds of millions of dollars annually to treat illnesses, to buy infant formula, and in lost productivity due to cognitive losses associated with not breastfeeding.

“Breastmilk is a pure gift for every child. It can save lives, by giving baby first vaccine and best source of nutrients. Promoting, protecting and supporting mothers to give breastmilk only, no water, for the first six months of life requires encouragement and support from family members, health care providers, employers, policymakers and all of society. Together, we can make a difference,” said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa during the initiative’s launch.

The Stronger With Breastmilk Only initiative focuses on stopping the practice of giving water to babies younger than six months as an entry point for shifting norms and behaviours towards improved breastfeeding practices.

According to Dr. Tina Sanghvi, Senior Technical Advisor of Africa Country Programs at Alive & Thrive, “Alive & Thrive’s successful experiences in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Vietnam demonstrate that it is possible to significantly increase exclusive breastfeeding rates in a relatively short period of time. Alive & Thrive brings evidence-based frameworks, methods and tools to support countries in West and Central Africa to scale up evidence-informed programmes that work, including initiatives in Burkina Faso and Nigeria, which are already showing promise.” 

Having a comprehensive national strategy that protects, promotes and supports breastfeeding is the most effective way to influence the environmental, social, economic and behavioural factors that influence a mother’s decision to feed a child breastmilk only in the first six months of life.

The Stronger With Breastmilk Only initiative aims to catalyze much-needed policy, social, institutional, community and family dialogue and change towards improving exclusive breastfeeding rates in the 24 West and Central Africa countries. It calls on governments, partners and businesses across the region to take action and position breastfeeding as a public health priority to improve the health and prosperity of children and nation.